2.3 million people are behind bars in the US—the biggest number in the world. In the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, thanks to the cynical “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies implemented in the 1980s the overall prison population grew 11 times faster than the general population.
According to an ACLU study, “Mass Incarceration of the Elderly,” within that embarrassing figure there are 125,000 prisoners aged 55 or older. And thanks to an increasing fondness for life sentences, the number of elderly prisoners grew even faster —from 8853 to 124,800 over 30 years.
The focus of the ACLU study covers the fact that mass incarceration of these people is unnecessary, unjust and extremely expensive. Recidivism rates for older offenders are very low. In any case, many in this population were sentenced for low-level crimes. Many were sent to prison as young men and they have grown old in prison. Like every aging person, they have medical problems—often much more extensive than otherwise, due to poor health to begin with and worse conditions in prison. The study likens some prisons to nursing homes.
Inevitably, they focus on the expense because the fact that things are unnecessary and unjust in the US carries little weight. State and local governments spend about $77 billion annually to run their prisons and jails. This represents an increase of 674% over the last 25 years. Could the shift to for-profit prisons help explain this? The cost to house an average prisoner is about $34,000—while a prisoner age 50 and older costs $68,000. Contrast that with the $40,000 annual income of the average American household and you begin to wonder who’s running the country?
While Leonard Peltier is unique in that the role he has been made to play in our society dishonors us, he is not unique in that he is one of a hundred thousand old men whose imprisonment makes no sense.