Opinion | Living Slow Deaths Behind Bars

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Many long-termers languish in cells or in substandard prison infirmaries or even in so-called long-term care units. With labored breathing, they limp to the mess hall and miss their chance to eat, sink deeper into dementia, fall and get seriously injured, and navigate hearing and vision impairment. At the same time, they are under the supervision of guards who lack the training and often the empathy to properly manage the diminished capacity of many older people to follow often senseless prison rules.

When I was a commissioner, from 1984 to 1996, it was unusual for me to meet a parole candidate over the age of 50. Now there are more than 7,500 incarcerated people age 50 or older in New York, or about 25 percent of the state prison population. In fact, from 2008 to 2021, the overall prison population declined by half, yet the population age 50 or older increased, with ballooning health care costs crowding out other budget priorities. The state spends $100,000 to $240,000 on incarcerated people who are 55 or older, according to one of the reform measures before the State Legislature; for others, the figure is about $60,000.

Why are so many older people who have served their minimum sentences still in prison? Because of the unwillingness of my former colleagues on the parole board to release people who have served their minimum sentences and often years and decades more. Sixty percent of those incarcerated are being denied parole, and in 90 percent of denial cases studied by the Vera Institute for Justice, the reason, at least in part, was the nature of the original crime.

Because many of these older adults received life terms as a maximum sentence (such as 15 years to life), commissioners who are unwilling to accept transformation in human behavior or are perhaps too cowardly to do their jobs in the face of public and political pressure can hide behind endless denials of release. The parole board can simply decide that a parole applicant’s release would, as the state’s parole rules and regulations put it, “so deprecate the seriousness of his crime as to undermine respect for the law.” Thus we have long-termers languishing through the years even though their risk of reoffending declines sharply as they age.

For older people in prison, “life” becomes just another word for a slow death sentence.

Indeed, deaths behind bars in New York State have mounted, with the average age of death by so-called natural causes in this wholly unnatural environment hovering around 60.6 years. The mental and physical stress of prison life can lead to accelerated aging; as a result, old age in prison typically begins at 50 to 55. If the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision were a country, life expectancy in its prisons would rank in the bottom 20 worldwide. In 2021, 96 of the 137 deaths in New York’s prisons were of people 55 or older. That’s 70 percent.

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