life imprisonment

American Prisons are Really Homes for the Elderly

The pandemic has not made anything easier, especially for those living through life sentences.

The criminal justice system reform group The Sentencing Project (TSP) is calling on federal and state governments to immediately release people over 50 years of age serving life sentences during the pandemic.

Today, American prisons house 1.4 million people, with more than 200,000 serving life sentences. Of those 203,865 people serving life, 30% are 55 years or older, making up 61,471 of prisoners in 2020. 

Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at TSP, addresses America’s elderly population in prisons who have an increased risk of health complications from the virus in a recent report

Life imprisonment during the Covid-19 pandemic “disproportionately jeopardizes the lives of older Americans in prison,” Nellis writes. The lack of adequate medical care, virtually no PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and close proximity to other prisoners only exacerbates the risks of keeping elderly lifers locked up. 

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the immediate release of elderly lifers should be a priority,” Nellis urged as 30% of life prisoners are 55 and older, putting thousands at risk of Covid-19 exposure. 

Life imprisonment rates in America are at an all-time high, with the number of people serving LWOP going up 66% since 2003. 

Public investments for supporting youth, ensuring access to medical and mental health care, expanding living wage employment opportunities and ensuring affordable housing are a better use of public resources than lifelong imprisonment

Ashley Nellis

Lifers who have been released after long sentences have extremely low rates of recidivism, amounting to less than 5% re-offending. 

“Men and women overcome great obstacles in the prison environment in order to move beyond their past mistakes and traumas,” Nellis writes, explaining how life sentences for many are excessive and end up draining resources for people that no longer need to be incarcerated. 

Keeping people incarcerated is not only unnecessary for the individuals serving time but is counterproductive for the state. Resources are wasted on housing, feeding, and supplying health resources to America’s growing elderly prison population.

“The responsibility, morally, legally and fiscally, for medical care falls on the state, which is especially draining on resources during this era of COVID-19,” Nellis explains. 

Resources during the pandemic are sparse to begin with. Keeping people in prison for life only wastes resources on reformed individuals when there are other institutions more in need of funding.

“Public investments for supporting youth, ensuring access to medical and mental health care, expanding living wage employment opportunities and ensuring affordable housing are a better use of public resources than lifelong imprisonment,” Nellis explains. 

Nellis gives substantive recommendations to combat the life imprisonment epidemic: abolish life without parole, cap life sentences at 20 years (unless in a rare situation), accelerate and expand release opportunities and reorient victim and community involvement toward true healing. 

These reform recommendations shift the narrative from blaming individuals for crime and reorienting it to a public health problem. Life imprisonment reform should not be about punishment but in believing how everyone has the ability to change. 

The research done by Nellis on life imprisonment updates the reality of the prison industrial complex in America and brings to light yet another antiquated and unnecessary practice which is overdue for reform. 

Some states have gotten the hint at the draconian life imprisonment system and are actively working toward reform. 

In 2018, California passed a law for “prosecutors to seek sentence modification from judges if sentences are believed to be excessive,” and in New Jersey, The Second Look Act legislation in 2019 was proposed for incarcerated persons to “petition the court for a sentence modification after 10 years,” Nellie writes. 

Prisons in America house an increasing number of older citizens behind bars, turning prisons into homes for the elderly. Putting people in cages until the end of their life ignores the main problem of criminality in America. 

“Society can and should do more to support those most at-risk of criminal conduct in the first place, responding to crime as, fundamentally, a public health problem,” Nellis explains. 

Daniel Karny is a sophomore at the State University of Rutgers New Brunswick majoring in political science with a minor in law and history. In his spare time he enjoys strumming his six string and hiking around New Jersey.

Daniel Karny is a sophomore at the State University of Rutgers New Brunswick majoring in political science with a minor in law and history. In his spare time he enjoys strumming his six string and hiking around New Jersey.

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