According to the Washington Department of Corrections, as of June 2018, there were a total of 17,845 inmates being held in correctional facilities and 18% of those were aged 50 years or more. There are 12 correctional facilities in Washington, and unfortunately, most of them are not equipped to meet their elderly inmates' needs when it comes to staffing and physical needs.
Inmates tend to age faster, so compounding the issue is the fact that many inmates need some sort of elderly assistance 10 to 15 years before their free counterparts do. It has been estimated that once an inmate turns 50 years old, it costs the state twice as much to house them.
There are two reasons why Washington prisons are home to so many older inmates. A U.S. Department of Justice study showed that from 2003 to 2013, most of the prison growth across the country was in the category of inmates 55 and older. This is because (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.
In fact, Washington was the first state to pass a “three strikes” law in 1993, which states that if you are convicted of a third felony, you are automatically sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Three strikes laws were popular because people thought they would reduce violent crimes, but in fact, they have only added to prison populations and now many facilities are struggling to find ways to care for inmates who have declining physical and/or mental challenges.
Elderly Inmates Needs in Washington
At the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Washington, many of the oldest and sickest inmates have been moved into the Sage dormitory, which used to house low-risk inmates. There is a lack of resources to retrofit bathrooms or hallways for those in wheelchairs, so the staff has had to become creative in working around such challenges. One solution was to employ other prisoners at the facility as helpers to those with needs, and in return, they are paid a small hourly wage. Helpers open doors, feed, and act as companions to those who need it.
But in addition to facing these challenges, prisons with aging inmates also have to consider hiring more geriatric healthcare workers and nurses to take care of their inmates, which in turn costs more money.
Solutions to the Aging Population of Prisons
Studies have shown that age, more than any other factor, is the leading cause for someone to not commit additional crimes. Advocates believe that there should be new policies that would allow certain inmates who meet certain criteria (such as non-violent offenders who have declining physical or mental abilities) to be released early.
Advocates also believe that states like Washington need to pass more legislation that would only impose life sentences for high-level, serious drug crimes. In April 2019, Washington did pass a bill that removed second-degree burglary from the list of crimes that warranted a three-strikes sentence, but they did not make it retroactive for those 62 inmates who are currently serving life sentences.
Defense Attorney Steve Karimi
As a former prosecutor, Steve Karimi knows both sides of the law and now spends his time defending those in Washington accused of serious crimes. Contact his office today for a consultation at 206-621-8777.