Last summer, we examined the issue of aging behind bars in Washington prisons. According to the Washington Department of Corrections, there were over 17 thousand inmates in our state at that time, and 18% of them were over the age of 50. The number of older inmates behind bars has risen in recent years. Between 2003 and 2013, most of the prison growth across the United States was in the category of inmates 55 and older, due to the fact that (1) more prisoners are serving longer terms, usually for violent offenses, and (2) harsh sentencing practices, like the “three strikes and you're out” policy of the 1990s.
As we discussed, an aging prison population was problematic prior to the current pandemic. Those living behind bars tend to have more serious age-related health issues earlier in their lives, leading to an increase in medical needs. Many inmates need some sort of elderly assistance 10 to 15 years before their free counterparts do. Many of our institutions are not equipped to meet their elderly inmates' needs when it comes to staffing and physical needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the United States in early 2020, starting in the greater Seattle area, places a new, unique threat to those behind bars. Unfortunately, it places an even more serious threat to elderly incarcerated individuals.
As scientists have studied the data collected worldwide since the start of the pandemic, it has become clear that the rates of mortality from COVID-19 are much higher amongst elderly individuals. Estimates from researchers at the Imperial College of London are that the death rate is almost 10 times higher than average for those over 80 and much lower for those under 40. It has become clear that protecting our older population through quarantine, isolation, and social distancing is one of the top mitigation techniques we can employ to keep our population safe. But what about the elderly who are incarcerated?
Many advocates are extremely worried about how the virus could affect the prison population. Prisoner advocacy groups states including Texas, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Michigan, have called on their governors to release state prisoners, especially elderly inmates, through compassionate release or medical furlough.
Jose Saldana is the director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign based in New York. His organization joined force with other groups to demand that Governor Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers grant clemency to “vulnerable” people in prison, including the old and sick. While many states have released some individuals from local and county jails (including many who were awaiting trial for crimes they haven't been convicted of), the elderly who are currently in state prison are facing a much more dire situation. Many have underlying conditions that make their risk of exposure even more serious, and the resources within prisons are simply not up to the task of carrying for a significant viral outbreak. “If it hits state prison, it's going to hit hard,” stated Mr. Saldana.