Dignity Denied: The Cost of Imprisoning Older Women

Article excerpt

"Staff says all inmates are to be treated just alike. There is no differentiation, whether you're old, crippled or whatever"

-Myrtle Green, 73, incarcerated at the California Institution for Women

The United States maintains the dubious distinction of having the world's largest incarcerated population, with more than 2.2 million people in prison and counting. The extensive racial disparities in the criminal justice system mean that African American and Latino communities are disproportionately affected by these policies. As the number of inmates continues to soar due to tough-on-crime laws and a general reluctance to put long-term prisoners on parole, more people than ever before are growing older behind bars.

One of every 23 people in prison is age 55 or older, and the population of older prisoners is expected to rise dramatically over the next 20 years. Nationally, the annual cost of incarcerating an older prisoner averages $70,000-about the average yearly cost of a nursing home in the United States and nearly double the annual cost for housing a younger prisoner. But extensive research shows that increasing age is one of the most reliable predictors of parole success.

A 1990 federal study found that only 2% of men paroled after age 55 returned to prison. The diminished risk of nonviolent older prisoners was even recog- . nized in a 2003 study by the California Legislative Analyst's Office, which stated, "Elder prisoners are costly to care for, yet, research indicates that many of these older inmates represent a low risk of reoffending and show high rates of parole success."

Few professionals in tne held of aging may be aware of the significant challenges and harsh reality of aging in prison-an environment not designed to meet the specific needs of older adults. The continued incarceration of frail elders-who represent the smallest threat to public safety but are the most expensive to incarcerate-stems from failed public policies.

The crisis of the graying prison population is occurring within a larger context of the strain on many state budgets caused by escalating costs of an ever-expanding prison population. Last May, for example, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the largest prison expansion legislation in California history, aiming to establish 53,000 new prison beds at a projected cost of $7.4 billion. Shortly after signing the bill, Schwarzenegger expressed his regret that social service programs for people who are blind, old and frail, or disabled would be subject to cuts because of the prison-building initiative. Another outcome of this legislation is that California's prison budget now exceeds its spending on higher education.

This spending priority raises troubling questions about the nature of public safety and public welfare. What does it mean when a society spends more money on imprisoning people-especially frail elders who pose little or no threat to the community-than on educating youth?

Concerned by this situation, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children (LSPC), our San Francisco-based advocacy organization investigating conditions of confinement in California prisons, undertook a research project to document the health and safety concerns of older women who are aging in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Specific objectives of this study included examining the conditions of confinement for women prisoners ages 55 and older, identifying barriers to their health and safety, and developing strategies to improve their health and well-being. Although LSPC focused on the particular situation of incarcerated women, many of the issues explored apply to male prisoners as well.


In August 2004, LSPC collaborated with geriatric health professionals and women prisoners to develop a comprehensive, 50-item questionnaire on health status and living conditions for older prisoners. LSPC received 120 completed surveys representing approximately 30% of the prison population of women ages 55-plus at the time of our research. …