Elderly and Incarcerated: Preventing the Medical Deaths of Older People in Texas Prisons

By Parks, Erika A. | Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Elderly and Incarcerated: Preventing the Medical Deaths of Older People in Texas Prisons


Parks, Erika A., Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights


I. INTRODUCTION......................................146

II. THE COSTS OF LIFE AND DEATH IN PRISON.....................................147

III. OLDER PEOPLE IN TEXAS PRISONS.....................................148

IV. DATA ON DEATHS IN STATE CUSTODY NATIONWIDE.....................................149

V. ANALYSIS OF DEATHS IN TDC J CUSTODY.....................................151

VI. OVERALL DATA.....................................152

VII. ELDERLY PEOPLE ENTERING PRISON.....................................153

VIII. GROWING OLD IN PRISON.....................................155

IX. FALLING III AND DYING IN PRISON.....................................156

X. GERIATRIC RELEASE IN TEXAS.....................................156

XI. COMPARISONS WITH GERIATRIC RELEASE PROGRAMS IN OTHER STATES.....................................158

XII. POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS.....................................159

1. Loosen restrictions on eligibility for compassionate and medical release, and automatically consider eligible people for release without requiring an application.....................................159

2. Prioritize alternatives to prison for people sentenced when they are older.....................................159

3. Establish residential facilities to safely house older people released under parole supervision or alternatively sentenced.....................................160

4. Reform harsh sentencing guidelines, increase the granting of parole, and improve parole release practices.....................................160

XIII. CONCLUSION.......160

I. INTRODUCTION

In Texas, the older population in prison1 has grown in both number and percentage of the overall prison population in recent years, with the population that is fifty years of age or older increasing from 18,067 (11.9 percent) in 2005 to 30,131 (20.3 percent) in 2015.2 This growth trend is mirrored across the United States.3 Experts point to several factors contributing to the rise in the number of older people in prison, including the aging of the U.S. population as a whole, the tendency of people to live longer, and, importantly, the effects of the "tough-on-crime" sentencing practices of the 1980s and 1990s.4 As people sentenced under those laws continue to sit in prison without release, it is likely that this population will only continue to grow.

The large number of older people in Texas prisons causes logistical challenges for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) as well as for the people in prison themselves. Older people have different challenges in prison than their younger counterparts, including mobility prob- lems, other physical and mental disabilities, and a variety of medical issues.5

Although Texas has a responsibility to protect public safety and appropriately punish people for their crimes, the data clearly indicates that crime decreases with age, and older people are less likely to be a public safety risk. According to one study, those over the age of fifty-five have a one-year recidivism rate of just 3.2 percent, compared to forty-five percent for people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine.6 Despite these facts, many older people in Texas prisons will never be released and will instead die in custody. Between 2005 and 2015, 2,286 people over the age of fifty-five died in Texas prisons.7 All but fifty-five of these deaths were due to natural causes.8

This Note explores current conditions for older people in Texas prisons and analyzes data on older people who died of natural causes in prison. It addresses research questions that ask what the demographic characteristics and criminal histories of these people are and what policy options can be implemented to reduce the number of their deaths in prison.

II. THE COSTS OF LIFE AND DEATH IN PRISON

The costs incurred by older people in prison are very high compared to the costs of incarcerating younger people with fewer medical issues. …

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