Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] expressed concern [press release] Friday over aging men and women becoming the most rapidly growing group in US prisons and the ability of officials to provide appropriate housing and medical care to these individuals. The report [text, PDF], "Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States," asserts that, depending on the state, the cost to effectively house and treat older prisoners is three to nine times higher than those for younger prisoners. The report found that 9.6 percent of prisoners are serving life sentences and an additional 11.2 percent have sentences longer than 20 years. Among other recommendations, HRW urged state and federal officials to:
The number of US state and federal prisoners age 55 or older is currently 124,400 which grew 282 percent between 1995 and 2010, while the total number of prisoners grew by only 42 percent.
- Review sentencing and release policies to determine which could be modified to reduce the growing population of older prisoners without risking public safety;
- Develop comprehensive plans for housing, medical care, and programs for the current and projected populations of older prisoners; and
- Modify prison rules that impose unnecessary hardship on older inmates.
California's prison population has raised particular concerns. Earlier this month, a judge for the US District Court for the Northern District of California [official website] ruled that California prison officials have failed to protect disabled parolees [JURIST report] by not providing them wheelchairs and other mobility assistance devices. Last year, the US Supreme Court ruled [opinion, PDF] in Brown v. Plata [Cornell LII backgrounder] to uphold an order requiring California to release up to 46,000 prisoners [JURIST report] to remedy the state's overcrowded prisons [JURIST news archive]. California submitted a plan [JURIST report] to comply with the court's order, but the state's Legislative Analyst's Office [official website] has concluded that California is unlikely to meet [JURIST report] the Supreme Court's two-year deadline. According to the International Center for Prison Studies [official website], the US has the most prisoners per capita [text, PDF] in the world.