Aging Behind Bars

By Alan Bean

The American prison population is rapidly aging.  You can find a helpful infographic on the subject here (I have copied the basic information below if you’re in a hurry).

The most shocking statistic is that “between 1981 and 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners age 55 and over increased from 8,853 to 124,900.”  And consider this, if present trends continue “that number is projected to grow to 400,000 by 2030, an increase of 4,400 percent from 1981.”

When I think of prisoners aging behind bars I visualize Ramsey Muniz.  Ramsey was implicated in a marijuana importation conspiracy in the late 1970s.  He wasn’t charged with actively participating in the scheme; but since Ramsey was an attorney who represented many of the people on the suspect list, the feds concluded that he knew what his clients were up to, was indirectly benefiting from their activities, and didn’t turn them in.  Ramsey accepted a plea deal that put him in federal prison for five years.

Then, in 1994, Ramsey was victimized by a bizarre federal scam.  A major Mexican drug dealer was given a get-out-of-jail-free card in exchange for setting Muniz up.

After Ramsey was found guilty by a jury that was intentionally shielded from all the significant facts of the case, the government argued that his conviction in the 1970s should really count as two “strikes” because identical charges accusing the same people of the same crime had been filed in Corpus Christi in San Antonio.  Thus was Ramsey sentenced to life in prison under an old three-strikes provision.

After 20 years behind bars, Ramsey Muniz is an aging inmate who can no longer walk without assistance.  As the infographic makes clear, there are few provisions for compassionate release at either the state or federal level, and those that exist are rarely invoked.  Timorous politicians fear being labeled soft-on-crime.

I have argued that Ramsey Muniz is innocent of the charges filed against him in 1994.  He is an attorney and a civil rights leader who has never profited from the sale of illegal drugs.  But suppose I am wrong.  What it the purpose of keeping a man like Muniz behind bars?  He represents as much of a threat to the community as I do.  A deeply spiritual man with a strong sense of mission, he is capable of doing much good in the free world.

There are tens of thousands of untold stories like this across the nation.  Please give the infographic on aging behind bars your careful attention.

Aging Behind Bars

The elderly population in prison is rising at staggering rate. The consequence of mass incarceration and strict sentencing policies at the federal and state level, older prisoners require more expensive care at a time when their danger to society at large is waning. Most are likely to die in prison, as programs designed to release such prisoners on compassionate grounds are rarely invoked, and don’t have much potential to reduce the population of elderly prisoners. Continued high rates of long-term incarceration of the elderly are likely to add billions to state and federal criminal justice budgets.

The Rise of the Elderly Prison Population
Between 2007 and 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners age 65 or older grew 94 times faster than the overall prison population.

Between 1981 and 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners age 55 and over increased from 8,853 to 124,900. By 2030, that number is projected to grow to 400,000, an increase of 4,400 percent from 1981.

4 Types of Elderly Prisoners

Old offenders

Age at 1st incarceration: 50 or older

Sentence length: 20 years or more

# of terms: 1st prison term

Crimes committed: Murder or sex crimes

Young long-term prisoners

Age at 1st incarceration: Younger than 50

Sentence length: Varies

# of terms: Either 1st term or repeat offenders

Crimes committed: Murder, armed robbery, rape, repeat drug offenses

Repeat prisoners

Age at 1st incarceration: Younger than 50

Sentence length: 20 years or more

# of terms: 2nd or more

Crimes committed: Burglary, theft, drug possession

Young short-term offenders

Age at 1st incarceration: Younger than 50

Sentence length: Less than 20 years

# of terms: 1st

Crime committed: Burglary, theft, drug possession

Why The Elderly Are In Prison
The overall prison population has doubled during the past 20 years from 739980 prisoners in 1990 to 1543206 prisoners in 2010 due to truth-in-sentencing guidelines and “three strikes” laws.

The number of inmates serving life sentences quadrupled between 1984 and 2008; inmates who live a long time with life sentences will grow old and are most likely to die in prison.

The number of inmates sentenced to life without parole more than tripled between 1992 and 2008.

Government Fiscal Impact
Care for aging prisoners is at least twice as expensive than for younger prisoners because this population:

* Has more health problems and requires more medical care

* Requires longer and more frequent hospitalizations

* Needs care outside of the prison system, which represents 72 percent of all healthcare costs spent on aging prisoners

Managing the Problem
By the time a person turns 50, the likelihood of that person committing another crime has dropped precipitously. Only 16.9 percent of prisoners released at age 45 and older return for new sentences.

Policies that could reduce the number of aging prisoners include:

* Granting conditional release for aging prisoners who pose little safety risk

* Utilizing and expanding medical parole

* Reauthorizing and expanding aging prisoner release programs

States could save an average of $66,294 every year for each released aging prisoner, which accounts for increased parole, housing and public benefits costs.

Impact of annual cost savings of releasing the average aging prisoner versus keeping them behind bars:

* Low, $28,362

* Medium, $66,294

* High, $104,434.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union, Pew Center for the States