An editorial in the timesunion.com by Elizabeth Gaynes & Brian Fischer (Aging Reentry Task Force and the Osborne Association)
Address the graying of prisons
By Elizabeth Gaynes and Brian Fischer, Commentary
Published 7:50 pm, Wednesday, March 4, 2015
We recently marked the 20th anniversary of the film “The Shawshank Redemption.” The movie — a tale of hope and friendship — received widespread critical acclaim and has become part of American pop culture. The story sheds light on the issue of the aging prison population — a social justice issue and growing humanitarian crisis that remains largely ignored.
In New York, roughly 17 percent of the state’s prison population is elderly. By 2030, the aging are expected to account for one third of the prison population.
This large-scale incarceration of the elderly is enormously expensive. The United States spends over $16 billion annually on incarceration for individuals aged 50 and older — approximately double the cost of incarcerating a younger person.
But cost is not the only reason to address this crisis.
Prisons were not designed to meet the basic needs of elderly individuals. Wheelchair inaccessibility and bunk beds make daily life difficult for people with mobility impairment; cognitive impairments and hearing loss exacerbate the challenges. When the health ward proves incapable of providing care, prisoners must be cared for at an outside hospital — with expensive around-the-clock guards.
Weigh this against the following fact: many “long-termers” are so old, sick, and frail that they pose virtually no safety risk to the public, with a national recidivism rate of only 4 percent for those over 65.
But, if we release more of the aging, as we should (of the 2,730 requests for compassionate release in New York between 1992-2002, only 381 were granted), we will need to address the dearth of community-based services to support them.
The majority of those released after serving long sentences face fading social and family networks, a struggle to access health care and housing, and a lack of skills required to live independently. Nursing homes often won’t take them, they are ineligible for Medicare while on parole, and many haven’t paid enough into Social Security to receive benefits.
So what is the solution?
The current approach — which is to keep people incarcerated for decades for no reason except retribution — is neither sustainable, affordable, nor humane. But to release them without services or supports appropriate to their age and circumstances, is an incomplete solution.
And the solution cannot be left only to those of us in criminal justice and corrections. We need the fields of gerontology, mental health treatment and senior services, working together to develop better solutions to the complex, multifaceted problems faced by aging formerly incarcerated individuals.
There is some progress being made on this front: The New York City Department for the Aging, the state Council on Community Re-Entry and Re-Integration, and New York’s city and state corrections departments are all engaged in the growing efforts to address the problems elderly individuals encounter upon release.
There are also several organizations around the country that have done work worthy of consideration. The Senior Ex-Offender Program in San Francisco is the first re-entry program in the U.S. that exclusively focuses on the aging population.
Here in New York, the Osborne Association will soon begin a pilot project to provide discharge planning and case management support for elders released to New York City.
It is a start. But ultimately, any systemic and sustained change is contingent upon our collective willingness to deal with the looming crisis of a graying prison population in ways that reduce costs and improve lives while recognizing the inherent dignity of all people.
Elizabeth Gaynes is president and CEO of the Osborne Association. Brian Fischer is a former commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.