Baby Boomers Behind Bars
A prison population of 2.3 million people: it's getting old. Not just the fact itself, but literally. Old enough that a prison in New York has created a dementia unit for its aging population. There are a lot of prisoners who must wonder why they are incarcerated, given the countless hundreds who are innocent, or the countless thousands who are languishing behind bars for years for nonviolent crimes (most of which are drug-related), or all those whose mental illnesses prevent comprehension; and then there are those whose dementia has caused them actually to forget why they are where they are.
Just as prisons have responded to the seismic increase of its female population with maternity wards, or to its increasing youth population with paltry attempts at educational programs, so too it now must address its older population with dementia units.
In New York, for instance, in the mid 1980s, inmates 50 and older comprised 3% of the prison population; in 2006, they made up 11%. In response, the correctional unit in Fishkill, NY now houses inmates suffering from some degree of dementia in this special unit, which offers, among other activities, Bingo every Friday. Across the nation, the number of prisoners over age 50 in state and federal prisons is rising at about 8% a year, according to sociologist Ronald Aday, author of "Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections", as reported by the Associated Press.
Although older prisoners are not new to the prison system, their numbers are. One major cause of the increase in older prisoners is our draconian sentencing laws, particularly those for repeat offenders and for drug-related offenses.
As our prison population grows, its demographics widen as well. Not necessearily in terms of race and class, since the overwhelming majority of America's inmates remain poor and disporportinately people of color, but in terms of gender, as daughters, mothers, and grandmothers enter prison at an alarmingly high rate, and age, as more teenagers are squeezed in while more elderly are kept from getting out.
Whereas our only hope at holding back the years may be an illusive search for the fountain of youth, there is no comparably illusory fountain of sensible criminal justice policies. To address our unacceptably high number of inmates, we need not rely on wishful thinking, but can withdraw the millions of dollars we spend on our senseless war on drugs and on building prisons and reinvest it into creating effective schools, affordable daycare,sensible welfare policies that encourage and enable educational goals, and job training programs.
In other words, while the aging process is inevitable, the size of our prison population is not.