Outman: California’s graying prison population
In September, a 74-year-old prisoner named Woodrow died after more than 40 years of punishment.
To the guards and prison staff, Woodrow’s death was routine. It meant nothing more than another available bed and the nuisance of having to inventory his meager possessions.
To the wheelchair- and walker-bound prisoners in Woodrow’s prison unit, his loss served as an uncomfortable reminder of their own looming, ignoble deaths in prison.
California’s prisons are packed with advanced-age prisoners. People 55 and older make up about 16% of California’s incarcerated population. During the 2000s, California added more than 11,000 people 55 and older to its prisons.
Maybe they were once menaces to society. But time and brutal prison conditions have taken such a toll on their minds and bodies that they are no longer a threat — other than those who cheat when they play checkers. Many of these old men are dying or will die in prison, despite extremely low recidivism rates for their age group.
On average, it costs California a little more than $106,000 per year to keep someone in prison, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. While the agency doesn’t track expenses by age group, the nonpartisan office reported that in other states it can cost two to three times more to incarcerate an older person.
There are currently few options to gain release from prison, even once you approach death. California has an elderly parole program that allows for people to meet with the California Board of Parole if they are 50 or older and have been incarcerated for at least 20 years.
But that program excludes many other people who should be considered, including those who are sentenced to death or life without parole. It also excludes anyone who is sentenced under California’s three-strikes law for their second or third serious felony conviction.
Data from the parole program also raises questions about how effective it has been at freeing elderly people. Between 2014 and 2020, the threshold for elderly parole in California was 60 years old and 25 consecutive years in prison. During that six-year window, the program had just a 19% release rate, according to Reciviz, which compiles data for criminal justice agencies.
Parole programs across the U.S. generally have low release rates, regardless of age. California is no different, receiving an F-minus grade from the Prison Policy Initiative. The difference here is that with low elderly parole rates, the California Board of Parole has chosen to practice a form of “senicide,” the willful or neglectful killing of seniors.
Everyone should care about this issue. There’s no reason to needlessly punish people to death, especially when that wasn’t their sentence to begin with — or the crime they committed.
This practice of letting changed, elderly people die in prison has quietly tarnished the soul of California, and it will continue to do so until something changes.
Robert Outman is a writer incarcerated in the California Substance Abuse Treatment and State Prison in Kings County. From CalMatters. This article was published in partnership with the Prison Journalism Project, a national, independent news organization that trains incarcerated writers to be journalists and publishes their writing.
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