When politicians promise to "get tough on crime," they don't always tell us what the hefty price tag includes. Take assisted living prisons that house the elderly and infirm, long beyond the time they are a threat to anyone, as an example.
Offering retribution and greater vengeance as the solution to ever more problems, law makers have classified more acts as crimes, many prison sentences have become mandatory, as well as longer, and early release for good conduct has been all but eliminated. This means life sentences and sentences that span decades are now common. The outcome: an expensive elderly prison population whose numbers are growing.
Crime statistics show that, generally, criminal activity decreases dramatically with age. Despite this, between 1992 and 2001, the number of state and federal inmates aged fifty or older almost doubled. (Pew Center on the States) Between 1999 and 2007, the number of inmates 55 or older in state and federal prisons grew 76.9 percent, from 43,300 to 76,600. (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics). The cost of keeping an older prisoner locked up is around seventy thousand dollars a year or more. (Pew)
The elderly in prison can be easy prey for younger, stronger inmates. Hearing and visual impairments, incontinence, dietary intolerance, depression, and the early onset of chronic diseases like Alzheimer's, diabetes, or heart disease complicate the management of older inmates.
Washington Post staff writer, Kevin Sieff, recently reported on the struggle Virginia's prisons now face in handling elderly inmates. (Virginia's prison system struggles to handle the surge in elderly inmates, 9-8-10, B01). He reports that, in 1990, there were 900 inmates over the age of 50 in Virginia prisons. In 1995, the Virginia General Assembly abolished parole. Now Virginia has more than 5,000 elderly inmates.
Virginia has modified Deerfield Correctional Center, which previously housed 400 inmates, to accommodate 1,000 elderly inmates in the state's only geriatric prison. Inmates are sent to Deerfield when they're too weak to stand or feed themselves, or they don't have much time left.
Deerfield has rows of hospital beds in a room the size of a high school gymnasium. Special meals for the diabetics and round-the-clock nurses in the infirmary are two of the requirements for running a geriatric prison.
Prison employees call the 60 men in wheelchairs who stream into the mess hall, followed by a group of inmates hobbling on canes, the "wheelchair brigade. The blind and the senile shuffle into the mess hall behind them. There are two rooms full of elderly inmates who are too weak to make it outside.
Sieff reports that Ray Tatum, age 73, bedridden and hard of hearing, is one of the few lucid residents of Deerfield's infirmary. Tatum, sentenced to 35 years for murder, now lies surrounded by buzzing oxygen pumps and cawing inmates, several of whom suffer from dementia.
To cut costs, Deerfield pays younger inmates between 23 and 45 cents an hour to push wheelchairs and provide other care. Tatum is cared for by another inmate who scrubs him at night and takes him to the recreation yard each day. These younger inmates know that, in time, they will be the ones being bathed, fed and wheeled outside.
"To Tatum's right, 86-year-old Aloysius Beyrer rambles incoherently. Pale and unable to use the bathroom without assistance, he relies on nurses and other inmates to roll him over so he doesn't get bedsores." Beyrer is serving a 100 year sentence for rape.
"We let the families come in, we let them sit on the bed with their loved ones," Warden Keith Davis told Sieff. "We try to be as respectful as we can." Sometimes even the warden doubts the logic of geriatric incarceration: "You see that kind of human frailty, and it's hard not to question what we're doing here."
Deerfield has a long waiting list. Do you know how this happened? Every time you vote for a politician running on a "get tough on crime" platform, you are a participant in changing in the laws that have given us assisted living prisons. Is that the best use of scarce tax dollars?
Posted on GenuineJustice.com on 9-9-10.