A look at Alaskans aging behind bars

Prisons in the United States contain an ever growing number of aging men and women who cannot readily climb stairs, haul themselves to the top bunk, or walk long distances to meals or the pill line; whose old bones suffer from thin mattresses and winter’s cold; who need wheelchairs, walkers, canes, portable oxygen, and hearing aids; who cannot get dressed, go to the bathroom, or bathe without help; and who are incontinent, forgetful, suffering chronic illnesses, extremely ill, and dying. [Human Rights Watch, Old Behind Bars, 2012]

Elderly inmates are the fastest growing age group in Alaska’s prison system as well as nationwide. Between 1995 and 2010 the total prison population in the United States increased by 42 percent. However, during that same period the number of male and female prisoners age 55 years and older exploded, from 32,600 in 1995 to 124,400 in 2010 – an increase of 282 percent. Only a few percent of these prisoners are women.

The explosive growth of elderly inmates in Alaska has paralleled the national situation. According to the Alaska Department of Corrections, all “sentenced and unsentenced inmates in both jails and prisons” numbered 3,823 in 2000, and 4,664 in 2016, an increase of 22 percent. During the same period Alaskan inmates age 50 and older grew from 353 to 909, an increase of 158 percent.

Looking at the nation as a whole, in the year 2000 older prisoners were three percent of the prison population. Just 10 years later they were 16 percent of the prison population. Moreover, according to projections by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in the year 2030 prisoners 55 years and older will be nearly one third of the total prison population nationwide.

Other national organizations use “50 years and older” to identify the core of the aging prison population. This is not a trivial distinction in terms of the implications for critical issues such as health care and recidivism (the likelihood of a released prisoner being incarcerated again). According to The Project for Older Prisoners (POPS),

...inmates tend to age faster than members of the general population. Research indicates that a prisoner’s physiological age is, on average, seven to 10 years older than their chronological age. Therefore, a 50-year old inmate may likely experience the age-related health problems of a 60-year old on the outside.

Alaskan inmates are not a healthy population when they first enter the system. Every individual who is arrested in Alaska is given an initial health care screening which evaluates issues such as suicide risk, injuries, medications, illness and mental status. According to the Alaska Department of Corrections (ADOC), “Nearly 50 percent of inmates report having ongoing medical problems other than colds or viruses.” Specific findings about inmate health include:

- approximately 30 percent of the inmate population has Hepatitis C, compared to 1 percent of Alaska’s general population

- as many as 80 percent of the Alaskan inmate population have struggled with substance abuse disorders

65 percent of ADOC inmates have a diagnosable mental health disorder (and it is generally recognized that the corrections department is the state’s largest provider of mental health services)

In recognition of the high health care costs and low recidivism rates of the elderly in Alaska’s prisons, a 2015 report by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, among other reforms, urged the implementation of:

...a specialty parole option for long-term, geriatric inmates. Geriatric prisoners are often much more expensive than younger inmates because of their higher medical costs. At the same time, research shows that older inmates are at a much lower risk of recidivism than younger inmates because they typically have “aged out” of their crime-committing years.

Late in 2015, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission presented the Legislature with 21 policy recommendations for criminal justice reform. These were subsequently drafted into legislation and introduced as SB 91. After extensive vetting by five legislative committees in over 50 public hearings, the Legislature passed the measure. Gov. Walker signed SB 91 into law on July 11, 2016.

Among other reforms, this new law created a new category of discretionary parole eligibility for inmates at least 60 years of age who have served at least 10 years of their sentences and have not been convicted of an unclassified felony or a sexual felony. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, no Alaska inmates have been released to geriatric parole, nor have we been able to find any eligible inmates that meet the above requirements. Other changes to how we are handling this population aren’t SB 91 specific, but we are working on developing more age-specific programs for our aging population.

This is a good start, but the reality of significant progress for seniors behind bars remains to be seen.

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.