We have a problem in this country. This tough-on-crime, ever-lengthening-prison-sentence-lovin' country of ours. The problem is that when you turn to longer and longer prison sentences, make parole less and less common, eventually you wind up with a whole lot of prisoners who are just too dang old to be in prison.
The octogenarian set isn't well-suited to prison life. Elderly men have a hard time getting up from a lazy boy. Imagine watching them try to get up from a metal slab with only a thin mattress for cushion. Prison is all hard edges and harsh atmospheres. Regular prison units just aren't set up for 90 year-olds.
And then there are the health issues. Failing organs, cancers, incontinence. The basic indignities of getting old. Don't forget the big one: dementia. Prison guards with their small salaries and lack of medical training just aren't equipped to take care of incontinent Alzheimer patients in their 80s.
It's a rather untenable situation, as pointed out by Jamie Fellner in this NYTimes op-ed.
I don't want to offer solutions to where we house these elderly inmates. I don't want to encourage compassionate release for those near the end of long lives. (That wouldn't exactly be a money saver for the taxpayers, anyway, as inmates who have been incarcerated for 50 years and are now 80 or older probably don't have any resources or much family to fall back on. We're most likely stuck footing the bill for them either way.)
Instead, I want us to take a good, hard look at why we're so dead-set on long, long prison sentences for everyone. We're costing ourselves so much money. On the housing costs for perfectly young, able-bodied, health inmates to begin with. Then the costs of the elderly inmates they turn into. Or if they do get released someday, we're still stuck paying for them because they have no way to support themselves. We're creating this class of people who will never again be able to contribute to society. So we wind up having to pay for everything, forcing them to live as outcast financial drains. This is why life sentences for everyone is a very short-sighted policy.
We just incarcerate too many people for way too long. This aging prison population problem is just one way in which we are going to pay for our addiction to life sentences.