This article focuses on elder incarceration and highlights the need for New York Senate Bill S15A, informally referred to as the Elder Parole Justice bill, which failed to pass into law in the early 2021 legislative session. The author quotes Jose Saldana and Laura Whitehorn, two formerly incarcerated people who work in their communities to end mass incarceration. The article also relies upon the author’s experience of growing up with her father in prison.
mass incarceration, elder boom, the school-to-prison pipeline
Prisons do not keep us safe. Over the past forty years, the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially (Chettiar, Bunting, and Schotter, 2012). Some might say that the number of U.S. prisons and the population in them is proportional to the country’s crime rate. Others might blame the War on Drugs for skyrocketing prison rates, as drug offenses make up the majority of arrests nationwide (Drug Policy Alliance).
Instead of posing a solution to our allegedly high crime rate, mass incarceration has become a function of our nation’s historical white supremacy and of its capitalistic economic system, as Black people are incarcerated disproportionately to White people, and prisons are a source of profit for local and state governments and corporations. The true nature of capitalism is to value money over individuals.
As prison populations increase, the external older adult population is increasing as well, which is sometimes referred to as the elder boom. This means that the number of adults aging and dying in prison will grow along with the elder boom. This also means there are thousands of older adults in prison serving extensive sentences for crimes committed decades ago. Three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences are to blame for ridiculously long sentences that serve no purpose other than to severely punish a person. The millions of dollars that state and federal prisons waste on incarcerating older adults could be better spent funding home- and community-based services and other care systems to support these older adults as they age out of prison.
In the United States, one way of dealing with emotional and psychological issues has traditionally been, and remains, to mete out punishment. Research has shown that there is a clear connection between incarceration and mental illness, as well as a school-to-prison pipeline and a sexual assault-to-prison pipeline.
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to disciplinary policies such as zero tolerance in classrooms that result in students being pushed into juvenile detention centers and eventually prison. As police presence in schools is normalized, the ACLU reports the police presence leads to “criminaliz[e]ing a wide range of adolescent behaviors” (Losen and Whitaker, 2018).
The sexual assault-to-prison pipeline refers to the fact in the United States that many young incarcerated women have experienced sexual violence, which happens to one in four American girls prior to age 18. A report by Georgetown Law showed that 31 percent of young women in juvenile detention had experienced sexual abuse (Saar et al., 2020).
Often, instead of the state providing proper support systems for individuals with mental illness, students struggling in school, and trauma survivors, prison serves this purpose. For people given lengthy sentences at the start of the War on Drugs (initiated by President Nixon in 1971 [Vulliamy, 2011]), their experience of the elder boom differs immensely from that of civilians.
Prison Is No Place to Age
Not only are incarcerated older people lacking caregivers and decent healthcare, but the prison environment causes them to age more rapidly. Likewise, as the older population grows in prison, so will the spending required to house and care for that cohort, which will increase by billions per state. For instance, New York State spends about $100,000 to $240,000 per older incarcerated person per year. (Osborne Association, 2018).
Many of the people who have spent thirty or forty years in prison are not likely to be a threat to others if released. In the United States, “recidivism rates decrease as prisoners get older—dropping to 5% for those age 50 to 64 and reaching less than 1% by age 65” (Clarke, 2019). Incarceration isn’t about “correction” or “rehabilitation,” it promotes profit and punishment.
‘Many of the people who have spent thirty or forty years in prison are not likely to be a threat to others if released.’
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts (McKillop and Boucher, 2018), “elders in prison often require expensive structural adaptations such as wheelchair ramps,” etc. As more people in prison age, the Center for American Progress says more money will need to be spent “refit[ing] facilities or build[ing] new prisons to properly house and care for elderly incarcerated people.”
The U.S. prison system also finds it acceptable for older adults to die in prison, even if they pose no threat to society and require a high level of care due to medical needs. To the prison system, that’s what a person deserves if they have committed a crime, and the statistics prove that this is especially true for Black people. Racial disparities in parole releases have been noted for some time, “fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men” (Winerip, Schwirtz, and Gebeloff, 2016).
Correctional System Not Really for Correction
In New York State, the Fair and Timely Parole Act (fwd.us, 2021) failed to pass the state legislature this past session, despite the percentage of New Yorkers ages 55 and older in state prisons having doubled between 2007 and 2020. This means that thousands of people who were given lengthy sentences in their teens and twenties have no chance of being released, even as they reach old age.
The $100,000 to $240,000 mentioned earlier that New York State spends per older incarcerated adult is an indictment of the wastefulness of our prison system. That money could be better used to fund care support systems in communities most impacted by mass incarceration. Had it passed, the Elder Parole bill would impact thousands of lives. Ultimately there would be 2,000 fewer people in New York prisons, saving the state $170 million annually (Holcombe, 2021).
One of those people, Jose Saldana, director of Release of Aging People in Prison (RAPP), went to prison in 1980 at age 28. Saldana was released in 2018 following four previous parole board denials. He understands that proposed reforms such as the Elder Parole Bill can mean the difference between life and death for incarcerated people. Saldana recalls his mentor Salih Abdullah, who died of a stroke at age 74 during his parole board hearing, after being excused to use the restroom. Stories like his are a reminder of the cruel nature of incarceration and its health impacts.
Prison is the antithesis of care, accelerating the aging process, and guaranteeing a decline in one’s health (Becker and Alexander, 2016). In Becker and Alexander’s report, Understanding the Impacts of Incarceration on Health, they note that “the health impacts of incarceration can be lifelong because incarceration limits opportunities, and exposes people to trauma, disease, chronic stress, social stigma, and exclusion; once incarcerated, people are trapped.”
And healthcare in prison is dire. Often, incarcerated people take it upon themselves to set up systems of care for one another. As a mentor, Abdullah taught Saldana to always keep a medical dictionary with him in his cell because “we get substandard healthcare, we don’t get diagnosed for things like high blood pressure ’til later on in life.” For aging people in prison with cognitive impairments and physical disabilities, Saldana says the “only care that they get is neglect. They lay in their own waste.”
‘Mental and emotional stress accelerates the aging process, causing millions of incarcerated people to miss out on decades of their lives.’
He referenced instances where the parole board held a bedside hearing for an 80-year-old incarcerated person. This person was hard of hearing and could not properly communicate throughout the hearing. Despite this, the board denied him parole. This is a prime example of the wastefulness and lack of humanity that characterizes the prison system. People like the man who was hard-of hearing deserve care, but also freedom.
Along with accelerated aging, incarcerated people regress emotionally. According to The National Research Council, “Imprisonment can adversely affect the interpersonal interactions in which prisoners engage once they are released, closing off opportunities to obtain badly needed social, economic, and other kinds of support” (National Research Council, 2014).
Laura Whitehorn, a formerly incarcerated activist who works with RAPP remembers how “every time I got transferred to a new prison, the first thing that would happen is you’d step off the bus and the correctional worker would scream at you in a brutal way.”
Saldana recalls how prisons, “don’t offer a single program to show us how to take responsibility for the crimes we’ve committed. Not a single program to show us the harm that our crimes have cost. We develop these programs for ourselves.”
The prison system not only has no system of accountability or “correction,” but does everything in its power to hinder communication and connection between incarcerated people and their families. Whether that means charging exorbitant fines for phone calls or using extensive security protocols for in-person visits, the lack of connection to family takes an emotional and mental toll on incarcerated people. Saldana and Whitehorn mentioned the added stress of worrying about their family members on the outside.
Such mental and emotional stress accelerates the aging process, causing millions of incarcerated people to miss out on decades of their lives. Accelerated aging, combined with emotional stress and abysmal healthcare makes it practically impossible to survive, much less thrive in any way while in prison. Despite this, incarcerated people create and maintain mentorship and educational programs for everyone.
Getting Out or Dying In
People in prison aren’t usually viewed as scholars, but for many, prison is the first place where they receive an education. My father earned his GED while he was incarcerated. Yet, prisons aren’t a place where scholarship is cultivated. Saldana’s mentor Abdullah was known as a scholar, and “if he was white, he would’ve been held as a hero,” said Saldana. So, if prisons aren’t for correction, personal reform, education, or accountability, what purpose do they serve? Prisons are glorified death camps. Even when people are released from prison, many die soon after.
One of the men Whitehorn worked with at RAPP died two weeks after he got out. It’s almost as if their bodies give out upon encountering freedom. When Whitehorn started at RAPP in 2013, elders (ages 50 and older) made up 27 percent of the prison population, and now that number has increased substantially. A Human Rights Watch report, “The Aging Prison Population,” states “the number of sentenced federal and state prisoners who are age 65 or older grew an astonishing 94 times faster than the total sentenced prisoner population between 2007 and 2010. The older prison population increased by 63 percent, while the total prison population grew by 0.7 percent during the same period” (Human Rights Watch, 2012).
Soon we’ll have to confront how to care for older adults in prison, or confront why we insist on keeping them there.
The lack of fairness in elder parole represents a larger problem in our society, in which decades of mass criminalization of Black people has created a sentiment that says Black people and people who go to prison aren’t deserving of dignity and compassion. We see the same lack of compassion and justification play out every time a police officer kills a Black person on video.
Of Care, Compassion, and Freedom
In care work, the goal should be freedom. How can we center care work around freedom and liberation? For some, the answer might be reform, but that has been tried and failed again and again. Abolishing prisons begins with significantly downsizing the population, meaning releasing elders. Older people who have been in prison for decades need compassion and deserve freedom. Many of these older adults want to contribute to society in some way. As Saldana said, “Almost everyone I know from my era who has been released is contributing to their community in some way.”
Prison now serves as the infrastructure to absorb our communities’ problems like poverty, mental illness, abuse, etc. Instead of getting to the root of the problem and creating “all kinds of mental health initiatives and interventions that are community-based, we have policing and prisons, that’s the first line of care for people with mental illness,” says Whitehorn.
Whatever our goals are for the betterment of care for older adults, one of them should be ending the existence of prisons or severely downsizing the number of incarcerated people. At the rate that our prisons and the older population are growing, we’ll have to confront how to care for older adults in prison or confront why we insist on keeping them there.
Many of the solutions to society’s problems are within reach. The money used to incarcerate people should be used to support the needs of our communities. That money could be used for building a better care infrastructure, for example, creating funds for families to hire home care workers, increasing pay for those care workers, or giving parents a stipend for childcare, beyond a small tax refund. That is the only way to get to the root of the issue, which is lack of care.
With the money our country uses for policing, prisons, and the military, we could build a society that can provide care. The government’s job is to create a cushion for people to more easily care for themselves, their families, and the people in their community. The easier it is for people to care for one another, the better our world will be.
Ifetayo Harvey is the social media manager at Caring Across Generations, worked at the Drug Policy Alliance in New York City for five years, and is the founder and board president of the People of Color Psychedelic Collective. She has a Bachelor’s degree from Smith College in history and African studies.
Becker, S., and Alexander, L. 2016. “Understanding the Impacts of Incarceration on Health.” Rethink Health. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
Chettiar, I., Bunting, W., and Schotter, G. 2012. “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.” American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Justice. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
Clarke, M. 2019. “Aging Prison Population Finds Parole Elusive.” Prison Legal News. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
Drug Policy Alliance. “Drug War Statistics.” Retrieved August 27, 2021.
fwd.us. 2021. “New York Lawmakers Fail to Deliver on Parole Legislation to Address State’s Incarceration Crisis,” June 11. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
Holcombe, R. 2021. “New York Has A Parole Problem and It’s Past Time We Fixed It.” Retrieved August 11, 2021.
Human Rights Watch. 2012. “Old Behind Bars The Aging Prison Population in the United States.” Human Rights Watch. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
Losen, D. J., and Whitaker, A. 2018. 11 Million Days Lost: Race, Discipline, and Safety at U.S. Public Schools Part 1. A Joint Report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
McKillop, M., and Boucher, A. "2018 Aging Prison Populations Drive Up Costs." PEW Charitable Trusts. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
National Research Council. 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Doi.org/10.1722618613.
Osborne Association. 2018. The High Costs of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
Saar, M. S., et al. 2019. The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story. Human Rights Project for Girls; Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality; and Ms. Foundation for Women. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
Vulliamy, E. 2011. “Nixon’s War on Drugs Began 40 Years Ago, and the Battle is Still Raging.” The Guardian, July 23. Retrieved August 12, 2021.
Winerip, M., Schwirtz, M., and Gebeloff, R. 2016. “For Blacks Facing Parole in New York State, Signs of a Broken System.” The New York Times, Dec. 4. Retrieved August 11, 2021.