Graying Prisoners

From:  New York Times
Aug 18th 2013, 
By Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch, focusing on criminal justice in the United States.

MORE and more United States prisons resemble nursing homes with bars, where the elderly and infirm eke out shrunken lives. Prison isn’t easy for anyone, but it is especially punishing for those afflicted by the burdens of old age. Yet the old and the very old make up the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.

Today, the New York State Board of Parole is scheduled to decide whether to give medical parole to Anthony D. Marshall, who was convicted of stealing from his mother, Brooke Astor. Mr. Marshall is 89 and suffers from Parkinson’s and congestive heart failure. His lawyers say he cannot stand or dress himself. He is one of at least 26,100 men and women 65 and older incarcerated in state and federal prisons, up 62 percent in just five years.

Owing largely to decades of tough-on-crime policies — mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws and the elimination of federal parole — these numbers are likely to increase as more and more prisoners remain incarcerated into their 70s and 80s, many until they die.

I try to imagine my 90-year-old father in prison. His body and mind whittled by age, he shuffles, takes a painful eternity to get up from a chair and forgets the names of his grandchildren.

How would he fare climbing in and out of an upper bunk bed? Would he remember where his cell was in the long halls of many prisons? How would his brittle bones cope with a thin mattress and blanket in a cold cell in winter, or his weak heart with the summer heat. If he had an “accident,” would someone help him clean up? Unlike Mr. Marshall, some older inmates committed violent crimes, and there are people who think such prisoners should leave prison only “in a pine box.”


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