PATRICIA WRIGHT expected to spend her life in prison in California, for ordering a hitman to kill her husband—which he did. Twenty-four years later, as the covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc across America, she has been released, aged 69 and with terminal cancer. That was one small victory for humanitarian groups that have been lobbying governments to free older prisoners. They are particularly vulnerable to catching covid-19, by dint of their confined living quarters, and to suffering serious or fatal effects from it, because of their advanced age. Yet, as Bethany Brown of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based lobby group, puts it: “These men and women have been given a prison sentence, not a death sentence.”
Ms Wright is one of an increasing but still too small number being released because of the pandemic, says HRW. Of 21,000 prisoners released in the Philippines in the four months to July, just 409 were older people. Britain has let out only 275 prisoners of all ages (some government documents on releases mention pregnant women but not the old). By May, Bolivia had freed only two inmates in total (more have since been let out). Still, attention is at last being paid to silver-haired jailbirds.
Globally the number of old people behind bars is increasing at a phenomenal rate. In Britain, the number aged over 60 has jumped by 243% since 2002, to 5,176 in March 2020; they make up 6% of the prison population. Today 20% of Japan’s inmates are 60 or older, double the proportion in 2002. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an advocacy group, estimates that by 2030 one-third of all inmates in America will be older than 55. They already make up a larger share of the state-prison population than do people aged 18-24.
Populations in the rich world are ageing. But that does not on its own account for the increased numbers of old people behind bars. Tougher policies on crime in America and Britain since the 1970s have led to longer sentences, so people grow old inside. In Britain, older people are being convicted of offences committed several years beforehand; male sexual offenders make up the largest proportion of pension-age prisoners. In Japan, older people are committing more crime, often minor offences such as shoplifting, because they cannot afford to live on their pensions. Some say that in prison they will at least be fed.
The issue becomes starker because those put in jail are often in poor health. And some studies suggest prisoners age faster than their contemporaries in the community. The problems are many, starting with the provision of suitable accommodation. Prisons were built for fit and healthy young men, not people who need handrails in the shower, bed hoists or escorting to the toilet. Old people have more health problems, often chronic, such as dementia, or incurable, like some cancers. Rich countries have started to acknowledge that their prisons now have to be nursing homes and hospices. But prison guards are trained in discipline and security, not nursing.
Old people cost a lot more to keep. The ACLU estimates it costs $72,000 to keep an elderly person locked up for a year, triple the cost of a younger one—and that is before providing them with proper services.
The focus during the pandemic is, understandably, on getting inmates out of jail. Provisions to do so exist. Some states in America, including Alabama, California and Georgia, have geriatric-release laws. Other places that don’t, Britain included, can use compassionate release. These provisions are “underused”, says Azrini Wahidin of Warwick University; only one or two people are let out every year in Britain. Some older people remain a danger to society but recidivism rates for the elderly tend to be very low, around 2-4%.
Those who are released probably also find it harder to reintegrate into society than younger ex-insiders. “We have too often kept them beyond the point of return,” says Ronald Aday of Middle Tennessee State University, of the situation in America. “They can’t get a job; their families don’t want them.” Kasamatsu prison in the centre of Japan’s main island runs exercise classes to keep inmates fit, and support services assist them once released. Nordic countries, which favour open prisons, do better at keeping people healthy and connected to society by never severing their access to social and health services in the community.
Releasing unhealthy or dying inmates poses other problems. Lynn Saunders, the governor of HMP Whatton in Britain, a prison for male sexual offenders who by nature of their sentence have little hope of being released before old age—if ever—says someone who has been in jail may not want to go to a hospice to “die alone”. If they have been locked up for a long time, all their friends are inside. Hospices and nursing homes often reject ex-prisoners. “Is grandma going to be happy to be in a home with a multiple-convicted rapist?” asks Ms Saunders.
In some cases prisons set up hospices on their grounds. HMP Whatton provides palliative care; currently it has one elderly dying inmate. Elsewhere dedicated nursing homes cater to former convicts, like 60 West in Connecticut, which opened in 2013. But it faced opposition from local residents and problems in securing access to federal funds.
Both Britain and America have acknowledged the growing number of elderly inmates and the associated problems. Yet neither country has a national strategy to deal with older offenders. That means provisions to deal with them are improvised and often depend on the prison—with varying results.
HMP Whatton, for example, has built 48 cells for older prisoners and has asked Age UK, a charity, to run activities inside for their older inmates. Fishkill prison in upstate New York was the first American facility to start a unit for those with dementia-like conditions; it has bright lighting, space to walk around and bingo. Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, America’s biggest maximum-security prison, has its own cemetery. Others have nothing to offer their older residents.
Prisons increasingly draw on other prisoners to help bear the burden. Sometimes that is ad hoc—a former Japanese inmate who served 30 years inside for murder before being released in 2016 at the age of 61 says she had to help older prisoners to wash and go to the toilet. Several prisons in California train—and pay—well-behaved inmates, known as Gold Coats, to care for their peers, in ways such as making sure they get their turn in the food-queue at the cafeteria.
The obvious missing part, says Mr Aday, is the “front end”. To reduce the number of inmates in a sustainable manner means putting fewer people in jail or incarcerating them for shorter periods, where appropriate. Russia, Ukraine and Romania limit the imposition of life imprisonment on people over 65. Ms Wahidin suggests that a prisoner’s age could be taken into account in sentencing. “A ten-year sentence means something very different for a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old,” she says. That approach, she notes, is “radical”. But extreme situations call for extreme solutions; the pandemic and the toll it is taking on government budgets might just focus minds.