iAge

Changing how we see aging

Aging Prisoners

The prison system is a cemetery of hope. Can it teach us about our own aging?

The prison system is a cemetery for hope, and we seem to be burying aging prisoners within the system. We need only to consider some basic statistics to realize the futility of rehabilitation in our penal system. The aging of prisoners further continues to bear witness to this persistent failure.

Statistics on prisoners are dramatic. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008, more than 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole—1 in every 31 adults. Of these, 2,304,115 were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails-- more than the population of 83 countries in the world. This level of incarceration is not only a waste of human resources, but it diverts resources from other social programs.

Although extreme variations exist in costs, we spend more on most prisoners than we do to educate an Ivy League student. And this cost will continue to increase with an aging prison population. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that it costs about $72,000 to house an elderly inmate for a year, compared to $24,000 for a younger prisoner.

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While these statistics hide the fact that older prisoners (61 years and older) constitute a small minority of the prison population (3 percent) this percentage is projected to increase dramatically. The U.S. Bureau of Justice reports that the number of prisoners 55 years and older grew 76 percent between 1999 and 2008—from 43,300 to 76,400—compared with an overall prison population growth of 18 percent. Ronald Alday, a professor of aging studies, predicts that by 2020 one out of six prisoners in California will be serving a life sentence and that 16 percent of those will be elderly.

With more and more prisoners suffering from debilitating diseases, the role of prisons is changing from one of warehousing to one of caregiving. Who is ultimately responsible for their needs? And, if it is the government, who is then responsible for our own aging?

A recent 2010 poll conducted by Lake Research Partners and American Viewpoint report that 58 percent of registered California voters age 40 and older say they feel unprepared to pay for services if they needed long-term care. Many just simply cannot afford it, and since at least 70 percent of older Americans will need long-term—like prisoners—we are trapped in a cycle of increasing and predictable needs with reduced resources.

The reason we find ourselves facing these issues is the veracity of short term concerns over long term needs. Like Oscar Wilde’s character Dorian Gray—transferring his aging to the image in a painting while he remains unscathed by age—we criticize the lack of long term planning in prisons and yet assume that we do not have to prepare for our own aging.

We need to ultimately initiate long term care provisions for ourselves and our communities. We need to educate ourselves on what services exist, their costs, and availability. We need to look at communities that provide local support services such as Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. San Diego has a comprehensive eldercare directory. Visit http://eldercare.signonsandiego.com/ and take the first step by examining the local support system available.

© USA Copyrighted 2013 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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