The Other Death Sentence: the cost of keeping very old men in prison

Mike Mechanic from Mother Jones shares a link to a new longread on the moral, practical, and financial costs ($16 billion a year) of keeping thousands of frail, infirm old men locked up in prison. The MoJo feature includes a powerful photo-essay. Mike says,

In the piece, James Ridgeway shows how 100,000 Americans are now destined to die in prison. He corresponds with a bunch of elderly murderers who know they'll never get out, and are basically waiting around to die and trying to keep their sick friends from suffering too much.

In the photos, Tim Gruber chronicled life in the nursing/hospice unit of the Kentucky State Reformatory in 2008. Seeing these needy, pathetically weak guys being spoon fed and's like, For Chrissake, why in God's name are we doing this? These guys belong in a civilian nursing home.

The Other Death Sentence (Mother Jones)


  1. So conservative politicians are cool with spending huge amounts of money on public health care, just not for non-felons.

    1. But can you blame the conservatives for that? They’re the ones who have suggested the inmates should have to work for what they get – sometimes even creative cuts like feeding them roadkill. If it were up to them I’m sure the felons wouldn’t have expensive health care at all.

  2. Is the answer really to put them in civilian nursing homes, where there is by no definition, a surplus of empty beds already; or is it to start building a different type of prison, to more appropriately meet the needs of people who are ultimately being incarcerated as just punishment?

    Above all, this is also a story on how employees of the Justice System need to be held accountable for properly doing their jobs and maintain a minimum level of acceptable health practices.

    1. Re: “people who are ultimately being incarcerated as just punishment…”

      In most cases by the time senile dementia sets in you’re basically just punishing a feeble old man who has almost nothing in common with the young violent person who actually committed the crime. That goes triple for people who were minors that were charged as adults.

      1. The alternative is have them in civilian nursing homes. Which is fine, other than the fact that civilian nursing homes have about the same reputation for abuse from staff as prisons do. Regardless of where they are the state is going to be paying the tab. Its not like these lifers have a nest egg saved up for retirement. (Not an argument to keep them in prison. Just pointing out that there is a lot more to work on.)

        1. Regardless of where they are the state is going to be paying the tab.

          Probably so, but any facility that has “maximum security” in its name is going to have a much heftier tab.

    2. I don’t want criminals incarcerated as punishment; I want them incarcerated to prevent them from doing more harm.  Still wanting revenge on decrepit, senile old men says a lot about the motives behind our “justice” system.

  3. This just in: taking care of old people costs lots of money!  Next up, new study shows that Toddlers & Tiaras is the death-knell of modern civilization, and honey may in fact be sticky.

    Seriously, if old people are in prison and haven’t gotten out on the U.S.’ very generous parole system, there is a reason these people are in jail.  Suddenly we are supposed to pardon them because they are old?  Any inability to care for the infirm would be a problem with the construction of our prison systems, not a problem with our justice system.  Queue reformative vs. retributive incarceration arguments in 3… 2…

    1. Seriously, if old people are in prison and haven’t gotten out on the U.S.’ very generous parole system, there is a reason these people are in jail.

      Good one!

    2.  Depending on the state parole provisions may be generous if you’re in there on state charges.  But there IS no parole if you’re in there on federal charges.  How much cheaper would it be to care for them if they WEREN’T in prison?  Certainly not 100% cheaper. And many of these guys were sentenced to life in prison.   Getting old and dying wasn’t some sort of unintended consequence, it is EXACTLY what was intended, often in a plea bargain to avoid a death sentence.  If we don’t want old guys dying in prison, than don’t give people life sentences.

      1. If we don’t want old guys dying in prison, than don’t give people life sentences.

        We need a provision for this that isn’t called parole.

        1. So what do we call it then? Charlie Manson is getting up there. Where do you want to put a guy like that? In an old folks home? That would be a lovely new tax on the elderly.

          1. The kind of facility that we’re talking about here isn’t an ‘old folks’ home’; it’s a long-term care facility or a hospice.  They’re not eating cucumber sandwiches on the lawn; they’re getting basic life care until they die.

          2. That’s exactly what I was saying, right up to the point that you started equating punishment with revenge.

          3. Punishment is revenge. Feel free to make an argument that there’s a difference, but I’ve yet to hear one that wasn’t based on soupy thinking and slippery words.

      2.  I don’t think prison works as a disincentive to crime, otherwise the number of people in prison wouldn’t be skyrocketing.

          1. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” – Anatole France

  4. OK, but what is to be done with these aged prisoners ? They likely have no more family/friendship ties outside of prison, no money, and they need medical assistance. Freeing them sounds like a great way to up the number of aged, sick homeless persons – not a great goal. The sad thing is, they’re probably better off in prison anyway – they have a roof over their head, and they get fed.

    Not saying that growing old in prison isn’t horrible, or that we shouldn’t take better care of these peoples. But simply freeing them would be the opposite of a good idea. At least when they’re inside some people have a small incentive to keep them alive…outside, most of them would have nothing.

    1. I agree that if our intentions are to be humane, to take a demented person with no relationships outside of prison and put him or her on streets is no solution. A nursing home/prison where elderly inmates could transfer seems like a good solution; I am not sure how well equipped a regular nursing home would be for this population – maybe it’s no different than any elderly person but I wonder if after being institutionalized so long there would not be some special considerations. 

      In the article it seemed that the man’s friends were such a source of comfort for him; it seems a shame that older prisoners would need to be separated from their friends who could never visit unless they were also declining. 

      As far as costs, we as a society agreed to take them on for life, so I do not think that it is fair to say now, “Oh, we didn’t realize you’d be expensive when you were old, out on the streets with you now.”

  5. Surely the answer isn’t to take them out of the community they’ve known for their adult lives and some of the few friends (or whatever) willing to take care of them, give them personal attention …. and put them in a civilian home where they won’t know anyone. And the attendees, who will likely know where they’ve come from and what they’ve done, may be even less inclined than prison staff to treat them with respect. 

  6. How much risk of escape do you have from a senile old man. A lot of the security measures in a standard prison just aren’t appropriate for a long term care situation. Many non-prison nursing homes are sufficiently equipped to deal with wandering patients, and it would make sense to make a facility that was a nursing home first and a prison second to provide appropriate levels of care at a reduced cost. That is, if it were about containing costs, securing prisoners or about quality of care, rather than the bottom line of the existing prison operators. 

  7. Seeing these needy, pathetically weak guys being spoon fed and whatnot…it’s like, For Chrissake, why in God’s name are we doing this? These guys belong in a civilian nursing home.

    No they don’t.  There’s a reason they are in a jail; it’s because we, as a society, decided we’d rather torment them for the maximum amount of time possible, rather than cleanly and humanely putting them to death.

    Imprisonment is cruel because it’s supposed to be cruel.  That’s the whole point of it.  Punishment, revenge, retribution.  Nobody really thinks it’s about rehabilitation, do they?  The US criminal code says “…imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”  Really, I looked it up – USC title 18 part II chapter 227 subchapter D § 3582.  The rationale for it is that harsh punishments “promote order in society” even though any real historical analysis makes that claim laughable.

    And it seems to me that this is what being against the death penalty really means – instead of efficiently and inexpensively hastening the inevitable end that we all will reach, lock a person up so they can needlessly suffer for the longest amount of time possible.  No expense is too great – we apparently have lots of money to spend on war, torture, and cruelty.

    1. There’s a reason they are in a jail; it’s because we, as a society, decided we’d rather torment them for the maximum amount of time possible, rather than cleanly and humanely putting them to death.

      Nothin’ cleaner than state-sanctioned homicide carried out by an inherently fallible justice system! Ahh, cleansing.

      1. Perhaps you can suggest something else that is more humane than lifelong torment?

        Or perhaps you can perfect the justice system?

        I’m all in favor, but I see no such options available.

        1. I don’t expect a perfect justice system, but I’d love to have one that looks a lot more like Norway’s. More emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment, no lifetime sentences without possibility of parole, a total ban on capital punishment, that sort of thing. Their violent crime rates are far lower than the U.S. so they must be doing something right.

          I just can’t fathom the logic that we should be increasing the rate of capital punishment in a system that regularly convicts innocent people. Would you tell Damien Echols that he should have been executed quickly and humanely?

          1. What you attribute to Norway is true for most of western Europe i.e. France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Denmark etc. The only western industrialized democratic country clinging to 18th century morals is the USA.

          2. I can’t speak for Echols (never heard of him before now) but I personally don’t want to be tormented for 18 years for crimes I didn’t commit; I’d rather die innocent if those are the only two options.  What’s wrong with death, that we should fear it more than suffering?  Everybody dies, you can’t dodge it.

        2. Well, the obvious solution is to stop jailing people for things like minor drug offenses, and then take that money and use it to deal with people who really do need to be locked up.

  8. For 90% of offenders, the idea of prison is a sick, twisted, cruel, barbaric antiquity. We need to do away with it and replace it with methods designed to actually make the victim whole and heal the offender.

    This problem is just a symptom of prisons. If we deny people health, self-dignity, skills, and self-determination their whole adult lives…what do you expect to happen when they get old? Some enterprising budget hawk might endeavor to simply dump them all on the street, their lives and vitality already taken from them by the prison system. But that is hardly a solution…

  9. I’m curious at what age it would be safe to release e.g. Charles Manson into a public nursing home.   Sure, it would save some money, but at what point is the risk worth it?  How can we really tell when a lifer is no longer a threat?  What is the likelihood that 20 years from now, there will be a headline on this very same board saying “Elderly Mass Murderers Released to Save a Few Bucks?”

    1. The recidivism rate for murder is extremely low even for healthy parolees. If the convict in question can’t even survive without full-time medical care then what are the odds that he’s suddenly going to buck that trend and go on a murder spree? This isn’t about risk management, it’s about maximizing punishment.

  10. “These guys belong in a civilian nursing home.”  Really?  And who will pay for the civilian nursing care?  Certainly not them nor, very probably, their families.  Health insurance is not a perk of incarceration.  If the tax payers are to end up footing the bill, then which is less expensive, care in prison or care in a civilian home?  At least in prison, these guys seem to have the support of their fellow convicts, a nicety that civilian homes will not have on tap.

    1. …which is less expensive, care in prison or care in a civilian home?

      Probably the one without an army of guards and a multimillion dollar security system.

      1. I seem to remember reading that the prison contractors get something like $20,000 per con per year; while I am old, I have not yet priced out nursing home care, but since it qualifies vaguely as “medical,” I would not be surprised to find it running more than that.  At a minimum, I would expect it to absorb all of one’s social security checks.  Without more research, this is all speculation, of course, but I was objecting as much to the tone of the original article that it was heartless to keep these old guys in stir.  It may be just as heartless to separate them from the only people they have known for the past 20, 30, or 40 years.

  11. The whole prison system hits the pleasure centers of both the American left (hurray!  more employees on public pensions to demand more protection of public pensions all while enriching our contractor buddies!) and the American right (hurray!  let’s punish people long after it makes any rational sense all while enriching our contractor buddies!), so nothing is going to change on this one any time soon, sadly.

    1. The whole prison system hits the pleasure centers of both the American left (hurray! more employees on public pensions to demand more protection of public pensions all while enriching our contractor buddies!)

      Do please enlighten us with some links to nationally known figures on the left who have promoted the prison industry.

  12. Yes, these people were incarcerated for violent crimes. Yes, they deserved to have their freedom revoked. We, as a society, incarcerated these people until they were too old for anything but suffering, and now it seems we don’t want to take care of them. Why? Because it will COST some money. How DARE these criminals get old and infirm and corrupt our vision of them as deplorable monsters devoid of humanity. 

    What the hell is wrong with us? We have become a species which sees its weak and old as liabilities to be disposed of because of how it affects the bottom line? Are we any better than jackals, or are they, in some ways, better than us?

    Soon enough we’ll be throwing anyone disabled or over 65 into a pit because they can’t contribute to society anymore. Despicable. 

    1. Funny. I actually invoked that at the end of my post before deciding it was too alarmist and changing it to “throwing them in a pit”. Well done. 

  13. What are you going to be able to do to help reduce the cost? You can’t just say “You cost us too much so you’re free” and then let them go out without a job and little to no hope of getting one let alone any healthcare. They will wind up homeless and die sooner without medical care.

    1. What are you going to be able to do to help reduce the cost?

      Just getting a geriatric care specialist to show up in a maximum security prison costs a lot more than getting a similarly qualified person to work at a nursing home. I don’t know what you do for a living, but I suspect you’d want more money if someone asked you to do it at Folsom Prison.

      1. OK. Murder kill slay death destroy people, families communities. But you know — these guys have lived a full life — even in prison — that they denied their victims. Watched TV. Played cards. Now they want the mercy they didn’t give to their victims. 

  14. If I end up in a nursing home, I surely do not want murderers and rapists and other criminal thugs around me. Are there any studies that establish that people magically change their natures when they’re old? Do kleptos suddenly stop stealing? Do rapists stop raping just because they can’t get it up? Criminals belong in prisons, or in prisons that are remodeled as nursing homes. And let’s revisit the concept of euthanasia — give elderly inmates the option for euthanasia.

    1. We’re not talking about people who just made early retirement, we’re talking about senile old men who can’t walk or feed themselves. So yeah, I’d say the risk of getting raped by them is acceptably low.

      1. They could easily torment an innocent (i.e. non criminal) person in the beds next to them. They shouldn’t be mixed into the population at all. 

        1. So you move them to another room. Hell, give the convicts a whole wing of their own if they scare you that much. Why do we need a maximum security facility complete with armed guards just to prevent the possibility of geriatric invalid being mean to his roommate?

          1. Well indeed, the obvious solution is not just a wing of a building, it is an entire prison-nursing-home built by the same for-profits that build other prisons.

        2. Your talking as though being tormented/abused by the guy in the next bed were only likely or possible from ‘criminals’.  I’d be more worried about the staff and free ranging ‘non-criminal’ residents.  Only a very small percentage of the ‘guilty’ in our society get caught and incarcerated.  I’ve done a few things I should have done time for, and yet here I am, free as a bird, lucky as hell, and not at all proud of it.  There but for the grace of God, darlin’…

    2. Have you ever had a loved one succumb to advanced dementia?  Because it really doesn’t sound like it. 

  15. It’s not as simple as sending them to regular civilian nursing homes.  First, they’re not likely to be able to pay for them, having been incarcerated for so long and being incapable to work now for health reasons, so they would still end up needing public funds to pay for their care. And nursing homes are VERY pricey. 
    Secondly, it’s not something that non-criminals and their families want.  Do you want someone who was a violent criminal moving into the same nursing home as your mother or grandmother?  Nursing homes are understaffed and the staff is overworked as it is, in addition to things like privacy and dignity laws, that would make it practically impossible for the nursing home to keep an eye on the criminals or their potential victims 24/7.  The nursing homes where my mother used to work had real problems with sex offenders.  Young sickos live to be old sickos and the other residents are vulnerable targets.  I’m sure it would be even worse if they had to deal with the kind of really serious criminals who were given life sentences.  There might be fancy expensive private nursing homes that could accomodate criminal prisoners while still keeping the other residents safe.  But the affordable ones that the tax payers would be willing to pay to send inmates to and that would be willing to accept inmates wouldn’t be those fancy ones.  And not having a ton of money to keep your mom in a swanky facility shouldn’t mean sending her to live with inmates. 

  16. Can we just clear something up real quick, because people are mixing up nursing homes and hospice. Hospice is where these people would be going. Hospice is for people that cannot get out of bed on their own. It is for people who are literally laying there, waiting to die, while we make them as comfortable as possible by doping them to the eyeballs.

    Nursing homes are a totally different thing.

  17. Ugh, these threads always bring out the sick twists. Clean, humane deaths? For real? Look, obviously there will be some people that need to die in prison. Charles Manson is an obvious example. But there are people growing old because of long sentences for drug possession or theft. A war hero shot a drug dealer who happened to be an FBI informant in 1970, and he needs to stay locked up? I think it’s possible to take things on a case by case basis.

  18. The article presents a compelling portrait of these aging prisoners, but in fact, offers no alternative solutions. It also seems to cast a wide net, not differentiating those prisoners with no chance of parole, and will absolutely die in prison, from those who are aging but will be released. The actual prison population who are in custody with no possibility of parole is far smaller than the numbers presented, but then that doesn’t fit the narrative.

    I also find it hard to believe many posters have had to deal with trying to find a nursing home to take an aging, very sick relative. They don’t want them. They don’t want the burden/cost of care for the extremely ill whether they are ex-prisoners or not. 

    I also am somewhat skeptical about the $16B number in the article. From the stats presented in the essay, they don’t seem to add up. And you know what Disraeli said about statistics: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

  19. “why in God’s name are we doing this?” Because the person they murdered has not yet come back to life to ask they be forgiven.

    Those they killed are no less dead now that the killer is old and perhaps suffering.  You have to be alive to suffer.

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