The past thirty years have recorded a rapid increase in the number of inmates in the American prisons. According to Rikard and Rosenberg (2007), this has been as a result of a convergence of trends for the past three decades. This paper seeks to address the reasons behind the increase in elderly inmates and the resulting challenges. Additionally, the best program to solve this problem will be discussed.
An increase in life expectancy has contributed to the increase in population. In 1990, the number of Americans aged 65 years and above represented a mere 4% of the total population. By 2000, their population increased to about 13%. The life expectancy over the same period almost doubled to 78 from 47 years. As a result the number of older people incarcerated in the Federal and State prisons increased from 19,610 in 1990 to 25,004 in 1993. Various states have recorded an increase in the population of elderly inmates. For instance, from 1994 to 1998, the number in Texas increased by 86%. It is projected that California will record a 200% increase in elderly inmates by 2020. Some authors allege that by 2020, the older inmates will represent about 33% of the total prison population in the country.
Advancements in technology and medical science have also contributed to the rising numbers. Although so much money is spent on the treatment of the elderly inmates, the treatment gives them strength to live longer. Similarly, the onset of old age in prisons is considered to start from 50 or 55 years. More inmates therefore fall within this bracket. This is mainly because of their long histories of drug and alcohol abuse, lack of medical care and insufficient diets.
The shift in the correctional policies after the Vietnam War also contributed to the increase in elderly prisoners. Before, the sentencing guidelines worked under the rehabilitation model. As a result, prisoners were treated for a certain period and later released when considered to be “well”. The guidelines later changed from rehabilitation to incapacitation. This led to the enactment of the Federal Sentencing Reform Act t in 1984. The Act suggested a mandatory minimum sentence for specific federal offenses. In 1994, the Violent Crime Control Act was passed. It eliminated any form of judicial discrimination: The judges could no longer prosecute an individual based on health, age or perceived risk to the society. Convicts therefore remained incarcerated longer, leading to an increase in the proportion of elderly inmates.
Because of this growth, the prison management faces a lot of challenges in managing the elderly inmates. For instance, elderly inmates have more health needs than the young inmates. They are most likely to suffer from chronic illnesses, psychological disorders, and substance abuse. On average they suffer from three chronic illness during their time in prison. It is therefore three times more expensive to take care of the elderly inmates than the younger ones. The older prisoners require drugs more often and spend more time in the health facilities than the younger ones. Adequate services and equipment are needed to take care of the aging inmates: They need 24-hour nursing coverage; pharmacy; infirmary beds; x-ray; physician availability; and rehabilitation services. The management spends more funds and time attending to the older prisoners. For instance, the cost of a pacemaker plant cost up to $50,000 while kidney dialysis for the elderly would cost not less than $122 per treatment.
Additionally, older prisoners are more likely to have been incarcerated for more violent crimes with longer sentences. The early release option mainly applies to inmates who committed minor offenses. The longer they stay in prison, the more expensive it becomes to take care of them. Rikard and Rosenberg (2007) indicate that about 75% of the older prisoners are yet to complete their time for their first offense. It therefore stands that they still have a very long time to go before they are released.
Rikard and Rosenberg (2007) suggest various tools and policies to cope with these challenges. However, the best tool is the Project for Older Prisoners. This program was founded in 1989 and operates through law students to reduce prison congestion and the cost of looking after the prisoners. It is creative in the sense that it links the former inmate to a law student who assists in identifying support services that will help the inmate integrate into the community. Other than decongesting prisons, it gives the law students a chance to implement what they learn in class.
Additionally, a victim can only be released with the approval of his family. The former inmate will not be a burden to the society. He will also be of no danger to the society. It will therefore be easy to integrate the reformed former inmate to the society. Moreover, since the victim would have served an average of his term, he would have served enough time in the correction facility as a punishment to his offenses. The law would therefore have served its purpose of disciplining the offender.
As it has been demonstrated, the number of elderly inmates has increased drastically over the last three decades. This is mainly because of the advancement in medical technology and an increase in life expectancy. However, it has also made it more complex and expensive to take care of the inmates. Generally, the POPS program should be implemented in more states because it is the most efficient and humane way of reducing the population of older inmates in the prisons.