Virginia Prisons’ Aging Pains

By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

Virginia, like many states across the country, is encountering a growing problem in its prison system: an aging inmate population.  “Elderly” inmates, those age 50 or older as designated by the National Institute of Corrections, comprise the fastest growing group in prison.

In 1990, Virginia incarcerated 900 elderly inmates, now there are over 5,000.

Virginia’s tough-on-crime laws from the 1980s and 1990s, particularly the abolition of parole and mandatory minimum sentences, ignored the science governing effective corrections and ushered in a period in which politics and antiquated notions of vengeance dictated correctional philosophy.  As a result the state’s prison population began to swell, and in the intervening decades, those once youthful offenders have become “geriatric” prisoners.

In addition to having more inmates in prison who are older in age, studies have shown that people in prison age faster than those in society.  By age 50, the average prisoner is physiologically 15 years older than a comparable person in society.

Elderly inmates, like older citizens generally, have higher medical costs due to illness and injury.   It can cost three times as much to incarcerate an elderly inmate as it does a younger prisoner.

Moreover, elderly inmates often have special needs.  So, in addition to all the security measures prison officials must be concerned about, they now also have to find ways to accommodate disabled prisoners who need handicap toilets and grab bars or have wheelchairs, and deal with prisoners who have dementia or cannot understand instructions.

To better manage the aging prisoner population, Virginia has a geriatric prison, Deerfield Correctional.  However, it remains an expensive effort, costing $28,000 a year to house inmates there compared with $19,000 for the rest of the population.

The high expense of incarcerating elderly inmates might be justified if the prisoners remained a threat to society.  However, almost all aging prisoners pose little to no risk to public safety.  Regardless of the original crime committed, the likelihood of committing another crime drops by 90% once the age of 50 is reached.

It’s a simple truth: Society is not safer when we keep wheelchair-bound or cane-using inmates behind bars.

Unless reforms are enacted, Virginia’s aging prison population will continue to grow exponentially in the coming years.  Major policy reforms include the repeal of mandatory minimum laws, particularly for drug-related offenses, reinstituting parole, and the repeal of habitual offender laws (i.e., “three strikes, you’re out”).  Recognizing that wholesale reforms to these harsh sentencing practices may take some time, short-term efforts can still ease the burden on our prison system.

Del. Patrick Hope, Del. Beverly Sherwood, and Sen. L. Louise Lucas have proposed reforms to Virginia’s law on conditional release of geriatric prisoners.  Under current law, many older prisoners, except for class one felons, may petition the Parole Board for conditional release.  Del. Hope’s proposal, HB 165, would allow all prisoners over 60 to submit such petitions.  Bills introduced by Del. Sherwood (HB 1064) and Sen. Lucas (SB 290) would keep the age and time-served criteria the same, but make qualifying prisoners automatically eligible for parole consideration.

Unfortunately, a House subcommittee yesterday killed both House bills.  Del. Sherwood’s bill will die despite having the support from the governor. SB 290 has not yet been heard, but even if it fares well in the Senate, it will likely meet the same fate as the House bills once it crosses over to the other chamber.

Given the state’s tight budget and the growing costs to house elderly inmates, one wonders why Virginia’s legislators don’t support bills aimed at reducing the number of older prisoners who pose little or no risk to public safety.  It seems that legislators still prefer politics and vengeance over scientific evidence.

Winston Churchill said, “Nothing is more costly, nothing is more sterile, than vengeance.”  Maybe it’s time for Virginia to let go of being tough on crime and start being smart on crime.