Sunday, January 05, 2014

Elder bashing 2: remember those who were incarcerated

In the 1970s, the United States lived through a cultural upheaval unleashed by the sexual and civil rights revolutions -- and a genuine spike in crime, possibly as a consequence of lead poisoning from gasoline. We responded politically by increasing penalties for many offenses, especially those that were drug related, and jailing offenders while throwing away the key through "3 strikes" laws.

Result: now we've got a lot of old men (it's mostly men, mostly of color) who have served 20 or 30 years behind bars, pose little danger to society, and will have a very hard time if released. When we do let them out, (hey, releases save governments money!) they have to survive without social support after we've made them unfit for freedom as elders.

The incarceration of vast swaths of the American public is now an aging issue. Our prisons have increasingly become homes for the aging, as there are now some 125,000 prisoners age 55 or older, nearly quadruple the number there were in 1995. Many of these prisoners are serving life sentences, but others soon will be released into society facing special hardships because of their age. They will join a massive and steadily increasing population of aging ex-offenders who always will bear the scars to their mental, physical and financial well-being that come with having been a prisoner in America.

… While nearly every American is facing a retirement crisis, ex-offenders will be fortunate to go into their mid-60s with any retirement savings at all. Formerly incarcerated people face a unique challenge to their economic security as they approach retirement. Social Security is the primary source of income for nearly half of all retired Americans, but a worker is required to earn credits to qualify. Generally, Social Security eligibility occurs after ten years of work. Eligibility for Medicare comes along with it. For the many Americans who have served overly long sentences, largely because of harsh minimum sentencing guidelines, ten years of work might be hard to come by.

… While many vulnerable older Americans can turn to public assistance programs for help, the options for former felons are often much more limited. Certain felons cannot receive federal housing assistance in many jurisdictions. Twelve states, including two of the three states with the largest prison populations in the country, ban people convicted of a drug felony for life from SNAP (formerly food stamps). Twenty more have modified disqualification, such as by requiring a drug test or restoring eligibility after a specified number of years.

… Research has shown that the average prisoner has a health status comparable to someone 10 to 15 years older than their calendar age. Seventy percent of older adults in prison have some type of medical problem, with rates of physical and mental disabilities such as dementia much higher than the general population of a similar age.

… In effect, our country's broken criminal justice system has condemned substantial parts of whole generations to impoverishment and ill-health of mind and body in their old age. Add to this voter disenfranchisement laws in many states, and we have fashioned a human rights disaster - a permanent under-caste of poor old people who are denied even the tiniest voice in our democratic system.

Conor F. McGovern, Truthout

There are encouraging signs that the country is recovering from our fear-induced incarceration binge. We are sending less prisoners into the pipeline these days. But currently released elders face an impossible, cruel old age.

This post is an installment in an occasional series on what I see as an escalating campaign to villify the growing population of old people, world-wide. Yes, there are a lot of us these days, but we cannot justly be made scapegoats for the world's problems. Part 1 here.


Rain Trueax said...

What we've forgotten in dealing with those who committed a crime (not including the racial disparity in sentence lengths) is rehabilitation. With our shortage of jobs for those without advanced training or strength, we leave a lot of people out of a respectable life that they earn. Legalizing marijuana everywhere and releasing all those in prison for non-violent, drug related crimes, would be a start but without rehabilitation efforts and money in them, it's not nearly as effective as it could be.

Hattie said...

I feel for them. I also feel for the many women who have been dumped and are alone and poor in old age.

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