America's Prisons Are Now 'Quasi-Nursing Homes'


Older inmate prison elderly

Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli

?Debbie Coluter, a certified nurses assistant, assists an elderly inmate, with Alzheimer's Disease, to his cell at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif., Wednesday, April 9, 2008.

America's prisons have an exploding population of old (and sick) prisoners who get shoddy medical care and often spend their last days behind bars, Emma Quail writes in the nonprofit investigative news site City Limits.


One prisoner profiled by City Limits, a 67-year-old named Phil, died at an upstate New York prison hospice after doctors allegedly delayed biopsying a spot on his lung until five months after it was originally found.

New York's "compassionate release program" supposedly grants parole to very sick or dying inmates, but in practice it is so bureaucratic that three times as many prisoners die in prison than get released, Quail writes.

Compassionate release isn't properly used in the rest of the country, either. This spring, a report by the Justice Department's Inspector General recommended that U.S. prisons release more sick and dying prisoners. The Inspector General said they should also be released more promptly.

In 13% of cases approved for compassionate relief by a warden, the inmate died before the Bureau of Prisons director signed off on the release, according to a New York Times article on the report.


Compassionate release could be a useful tool in reducing prison overcrowding and saving taxpayer money given how many old people there are in prison these days. The number of prisoners over 55 in America quadrupled between 2005 and 2010, according to Human Rights Watch. (The surge in old prisoners could be a result of lengthy sentences handed out during the "war on drugs" in the 1970s and 1980s.)

As a result of this older population, prisons have turned into "quasi-nursing homes," Quail writes — except they don't have the resources necessary for the long-term care of the sick and elderly.

Carrie Tyler-Stoafer knows about the poor health care offered in prisons all too well. I interviewed her recently about her brother, Timothy, who's serving a life sentence on a third drug offense from his early 20s. Her father, also named Timothy, took part in the drug deal and was given a 10-year-sentence.

The elder Timothy had a bad heart and died after being forced to have surgery in prison eight years into his sentence, when he was 53. When he got convicted, he told her, "This is a life sentence for me."

Head over to City Limits for a more detailed look at what it's like for older inmates to navigate prison health care.