Monday, August 19, 2013

Graying Prisoners August 18, 2013 Graying Prisoners By JAMIE FELLNER MORE and more United States prisons resemble nursing homes with bars, where the elderly and infirm eke out shrunken lives. Prison isn’t easy for anyone, but it is especially punishing for those afflicted by the burdens of old age. Yet the old and the very old make up the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. Today, the New York State Board of Parole is scheduled to decide whether to give medical parole to Anthony D. Marshall, who was convicted of stealing from his mother, Brooke Astor. Mr. Marshall is 89 and suffers from Parkinson’s and congestive heart failure. His lawyers say he cannot stand or dress himself. He is one of at least 26,100 men and women 65 and older incarcerated in state and federal prisons, up 62 percent in just five years. Owing largely to decades of tough-on-crime policies — mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws and the elimination of federal parole — these numbers are likely to increase as more and more prisoners remain incarcerated into their 70s and 80s, many until they die. I try to imagine my 90-year-old father in prison. His body and mind whittled by age, he shuffles, takes a painful eternity to get up from a chair and forgets the names of his grandchildren. How would he fare climbing in and out of an upper bunk bed? Would he remember where his cell was in the long halls of many prisons? How would his brittle bones cope with a thin mattress and blanket in a cold cell in winter, or his weak heart with the summer heat. If he had an “accident,” would someone help him clean up? Unlike Mr. Marshall, some older inmates committed violent crimes, and there are people who think such prisoners should leave prison only “in a pine box.” Anger, grief and the desire for retribution are understandable, and we can all agree that people who commit serious crimes should be held accountable. But retribution can shade into vengeance. While being old should not be an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card, infirmity and illness can change the calculus of what justice requires. It is worth asking: What do we as a society get from keeping these people in prison? People like the 87-year-old I met who had an “L” painted on his left shoe and an “R” on his right so he would know which was which and who didn’t even seem to know he was in prison. Or the old men I watched play bingo in a prison day room who needed staff members to put the markers on the bingo cards for them. Attorney General Eric Holder gave his answer to this question on Aug. 12 when he announced new compassionate release policies for the Bureau of Prisons. Elderly and infirm federal prisoners who have served a significant part of their sentence and pose no danger will now be eligible for early release. Recidivism studies consistently show declining rates of crime with age. Those who are bedridden or in wheelchairs are not likely to go on crime sprees. The scores of older prisoners I have met want to spend their remaining time with their families; they are coming to terms with mortality, regret their past crimes and hope, if time permits, to make amends. Keeping the elderly and infirm in prison is extraordinarily costly. Annual medical costs for older prisoners range from three to nine times higher than those for younger ones, because, as in the general population, older people behind bars have high rates of chronic disease and infirmities and require more hospitalizations and medical care. I have talked with dozens of correctional staff members who acknowledge that officers are not trained to manage geriatric prisoners. Nor are there enough of them to give the extra attention such prisoners may need — to ensure they take their medications, find their way to their cell, are clean if they are incontinent. So what can be done? Compassionate release and medical parole programs exist in many prison systems, but they are poorly used and often exclude people who committed violent crimes or sex offenses even if those people are no longer able to repeat such crimes. If the programs were properly devised and used, some aging prisoners could go back to their families. Others could be released to nursing homes or assisted-living facilities — although it is increasingly difficult to find private facilities that will take former prisoners. States and the federal government should also jettison laws requiring mandatory sentences that condemn offenders to old age in prison, without regard to whether they pose a threat to the public or have the potential for rehabilitation. If we aren’t willing to change sentencing laws or make more use of compassionate release, we’ll need to pour vast sums of money into prisons to provide adequate conditions of care for the soaring population of geriatric prisoners. That means investing in special training for correction officers; in round-the-clock medical care; in retrofitting buildings, wheelchair-accessible cells and bathrooms; in units with lower bunks and no stairs; and in increased hospice care for the terminally ill. But do we really want to go that route? In the case of frail and incapacitated prisoners who can safely be released to spend what remains of their lives under supervised parole, release is a far more compassionate, sensible course. Jamie Fellner is a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch, focusing on criminal justice in the United States. © 2012 The New York Times Company Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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