The Aging Prison Population is a Problem. Geriatric Release Can Help

A hand holding an elderly person's hand

By Angela Silletti –

Elderly inmate populations are on the rise. Almost 45% of the federal prison population is over 51 years old and in 2008, at the height of the mass incarceration movement, 837 of every 100,000 people were over the age of 55. There are a number of problems with this, including the financial one: the rise of elderly offenders in prison ultimately leads to an increased cost to confine them. They are at a greater prevalence of illness, which can be costly to treat in a prison setting.

Despite the large numbers of elderly people in prison, geriatric parole or medical release policies do exist in most states. But releasing elderly inmates through geriatric release is underutilized, as it tends to be politically unpopular. Politicians generally don’t want to appear soft on crime, and they may be acting with reason. Even low rates of recidivism among elderly offenders fail to sway public perceptions towards more lenient approaches to crime.

For example, Mohaman Koti was serving 25 years to life for shooting a police officer in 1978 over a parking ticket in Manhattan. The officer survived. By the time he was 80, he was deemed a low risk for recidivism. Although it seems rational that Koti would not re-offend, he was continually denied parole until finally released at 87 years old.

Recently, NJ.com posted an article on the 20 oldest inmates incarcerated in the state of New Jersey. The oldest inmate is 88 years old and was convicted of sexual assault of a victim under the age of 13 among other charges. This article highlights other inmates with equally troubling offenses including murder, kidnapping and more. It is not difficult to see why parole boards would be in no rush to release these inmates, no matter the age. But it’s important to note that there are many more inmates serving their time under harsh three- strikes and mandatory minimum policies. Many inmates do die in prison serving long term sentences for lesser offenses than the ones previously described.

There are surprisingly few studies related to attitudes on geriatric parole, and even less studies on public attitudes on this policy. ​A research study conducted by Boothby and Overduin interviewed college undergraduates on their attitudes regarding compassionate release of terminally ill offenders. As part of the study, 163 undergraduate students were given questionnaires that were completed in small groups. Respondents were asked to “assume the role of a parole board member” and evaluate factors that would impact their decisions to grant or deny release. Results indicated: 1) the type of crime committed by the inmate was the most important factor when considering release, 2) past criminal history was the second most important factor and 3) the length of time the inmate is expected to live was the third most important. Factors that the students considered less important included the inmates’ current prison sentence length, and the inmate’s age, sex, or gender.

Interestingly, these results are consistent with other research studies on geriatric parole rates, and states that provide online information on reasons for denial of parole (e.g., Virginia). That the students considered the age of a person important in regards to whether they should continue to be imprisoned is an important indicator that the public might find ethical problems with the current rate of elderly inmates.

There are, in fact, a range of moral issues to consider. Elderly offenders are at increased risk of victimization in prison and may not get adequate protection from abuse, theft, or harassment. They may not be able to get into and out of bed or make it to the toilet without assistance. They are often handcuffed to the hospital bed while receiving treatment.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” In order for prisons to be civilized, there need to be adequate medical care and protection against violence, neglect, and abuse. Estelle v. Gamble (1976) guarantees those rights, but as studies have shown, medical care is often lacking or substandard.

According to Rawls’ first principle of justice, justice is fairness. As such, it seems clear that prisons have a duty to treat and protect the geriatric population in a way that is fair based on their needs. When inmates are terminally ill or are no longer a threat to others, geriatric parole should be considered. It says something about our humanity if we are unable to consider the possibility of letting others die humanely.

Angela Silletti is a PhD student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York/John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Read more from her here.

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