In my Correctional Institutions class we just finished covering the section on special populations, and one special population really had me fascinated. The elderly prison population is not the first population we generally think of when we think about prisons. This population is rarely shown on TV shows such as Lockup Raw, rather, gang populations and individuals in Administrative Segregation are usually shown because these are the exciting inmates to watch. Many people are not cognizant about the large and problematic elderly prison population and the burden they place on the state and prison staff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fs_oXUM3pA
It is no secret that as one grows older, one’s body and mind start to fail, that is just how our bodies work. Inmates generally age faster than those outside of prison because of the constant stress they have to endure and the close proximity to others that generates disease. As taxpayers to the state, we are the ones that must front the bill of elderly inmate’s medical bills. These can be quite astronomical because cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease are not limited to individuals on the outside. Take a second to process these statistics; it costs around $24,000, on average to house a younger offender, while the average for housing an elderly offender per year is around $72,000 (TheCrimeReport). These individuals are certainly a huge burden on the state and taxpayers.
I am not saying many of these elderly offenders do not need to be punished for the crimes they have committed, but at what cost? Or does monetary value really mean anything when one is out for retribution and punishment? At age 55, one is considered to be elderly in prison; with that in mind, in 2007, there were around 89,000 elderly offenders in the prison system (healthjournalism). Just like America’s regular population, prison’s population is too growing older. Elderly inmates are more at risk of victimization than their younger counterparts. Victimization could be through violence, intimidation, and being taken advantage of in monetary ways.
Many of you probably do not know who Bill Heirens, Chicago’s “Lipstick Killer,” (as seen above) is but he is currently Illinois’ longest serving offender and has been serving in prison since he was 17 years old. Heirens is currently 83 years old and suffers from severe diabetes and early signs of dementia. The state pays around $73,000 a year to house Bill which includes treatment for his ailments, food, and housing (prisonterminal). The question I have is, why are we spending this astronomical amount of money to imprison someone who is clearly not of any danger to society? A simple answer would be America’s lust for punishment and retribution for anyone who has wronged society. What this man did is inexcusable and truly heinous, but with a state already in an enormous amount of debt, how can we afford to house harmless offenders such as Bill Heirens?
The elderly population is a very real problem from a managerial and security standpoint for the prison system. The elderly cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money each year, mainly through medical costs, yet they are almost an “invisible” population for those not familiar with prisons. I am not denying these individuals need to be punished, but at some point we must know when to say enough is enough, you have repaid your debt to society.