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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

February 7, 2012

Human Rights Update: Older Inmates Challenge Prison System

Many U.S. prisoners are aging, yet correctional facilities are not set up for some of the older prisoners’ needs. This issue touches on a number of areas of Catholic social teaching: the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable; the right to life (sufficient medical care); and the nature of penal system in the United States.

Those who planned prisons and their rules and procedures, did so with younger, more able-bodied prisoners in mind. Older inmates have a difficult time walking a long way to the dining room, climbing onto a top bunk, and so on. Medical costs can be staggering. In Georgia, inmates aged 65 and older had an average yearly medical cost of $8,565, compared to the $961 average for inmates under 65.

From their study of prisons, Human Rights Watch made these recommendations:

  • Review sentencing and release policies to determine which could be modified to reduce the aging population without compromising safety.

  • Create plans for the current and projected populations of older prisoners in terms of housing, medical care, and programs.

  • Modify prison rules that impose unnecessary hardship on older inmates.

Your students may be interested in creating and discussing questions related to this issue.

  1. Can prison officials ignore the reality of life in prison for older inmates? Why or why not?

  2. If judges lessen sentences for older inmates who are unable to threaten the public, where will these inmates go? If they do not have families, will the penal system cover their needs?

  3. We do not necessarily associate “care” with prisoners who have long or life-long sentences. Could the nature of prisons change if “care” becomes important for some prisoners?

To explore this issue further, see “US: Number of Aging Prisoners Soaring: Corrections Officials Ill-Prepared to Run Geriatric Facilities,” on the Human Rights Watch website. This web page also contains a link to the full report.

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