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The High Costs of Going Gray in Louisiana and Nationwide

The number of people age 55 or older in our prisons has grown exponentially.
Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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May 24, 2011

Prisoners across America are getting older, experiencing all the same ailments that afflict those of the same age who aren’t behind bars. Extreme sentencing policies and a growing number of life sentences without the possibility of parole have effectively turned many of our correctional facilities into veritable nursing homes — and we’re paying for it.

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While the national overall prison population is exploding, the number of people age 55 or older in our prisons grew by a whopping 76.9 percent between 1999 and 2007. This has become a national epidemic afflicting states around the country — from Virginia to Missouri to California — further burdening already strained state budgets. We lock these people up in the face of undisputed research showing that recidivism drops dramatically with age. It’s clear that it’s senseless to spend exorbitant amounts of money to imprison elderly people who are not dangerous.

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that Louisiana imprisons more people than any other state in our incarceration obsessed country. Not only does the state have a penchant for locking people up, it likes to keep them locked up for life. Louisiana doles out life without parole sentences at almost four times the national average.

As logic would suggest, the state has a lot of elderly people on lockdown, and the high cost of caring for this population is reflected in the state’s budget. On average, it costs $19,888 per year to house a prisoner in the state, but an ailing elderly prisoner costs Louisiana $80,000 a year. To put that number in context, the average household in Louisiana makes about $40,000 in annual total income.

But a light shines in Louisiana: House Bill 138, which would give individuals age 60 or older the right to a hearing before a parole board. The board could then determine whether these individuals can be safely released. In a state where most elderly folks never get a shot at parole, this bill would be a step in the right direction and would save the state a considerable amount of money without negatively impacting public safety. One of the most outspoken people realizing that many of these elderly folks don’t need to be locked up is Burl Cain — the warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest prison in the state.

In the next week, this bill will be up for a hearing in the Louisiana state legislature. Stand with the ACLU as we push to turn this bill into law. If you live in Louisiana, let your legislators know that you believe elderly people in prison should have the right to a hearing before a parole board to present their case for release. Tell them it makes no sense to incarcerate people who pose no threat to public safety.

Bills like H.B.138 are a good, common sense step toward ending the incarceration epidemic in Louisiana and across the nation.

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