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Dignity Denied: The Price of Imprisoning Older Women in California

  • Organization: Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
  • Author: Heidi Strupp at
  • Document Type: Report
  • Date Created: Thursday, January 12, 2006
  • Submitted: Thursday, January 12, 2006
  • Attachment(s): PDF
The incarceration of frail elders, who represent the smallest threat to public safety but the largest cost to imprison, embodies failed public policy that California lawmakers must re-examine, according to a new report released December 15, 2005 by LSPC. The report recommends the early release of elderly prisoners, and supports changes in policies that would improve prison conditions.

The report, Dignity Denied: the Price of Imprisoning Older Women in California, documents the conditions of confinement for the more than 350 women over the age of 55 in state prisons. Because of the "Three Strikes" law and a reluctance to grant parole, more Californians are growing older in prison than ever before. It is estimated that by 2022, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) will incarcerate about 30,000 elders. Due to health-related expenses, the annual cost of imprisoning an older person, at a conservative estimate, is at least $70,000, twice that of a younger prisoner. The report questions the wisdom of committing such vast economic resources for the continued punishment of older prisoners, the group with the lowest recidivism rate of any segment of the prison population.

LSPC staff members Heidi Strupp and Donna Willmott researched and authored the report. In it, they assert that prisons aren't geared to the needs and vulnerabilities of older people and that their continued incarceration poses fundamental questions of how we as a society treat our elders. While many aging prisoners share the same challenges faced by elders in the outside community (such as bathing, dressing, and using the bathroom), prison policies and everyday routines present unique problems. These include undressing for strip searches, getting assigned to difficult-to-reach top bunks, fighting over limited laundry slots, and waiting in long lines to receive medication. Many older prisoners also report feeling unsafe in their cells and experience difficulties getting help during emergencies.

Other findings include higher rates of depression among older prisoners than among elders in the outside community as well as reports of a pervasive fear of abuse, both from other prisoners and staff. There is no retirement age for prisoners; all but the extremely ill and disabled are required to work. The report documents incidents of 70-year-old women working on yard crews in 100-degree heat and arthritic women cleaning toilets and windows in their living units. Strict prison rules regarding visitation make it difficult for older prisoners to maintain family ties. Also, the failure to obtain humane medical care was a prominent finding which echoes the public acknowledgment of the medical care crisis in California prisons.

The report offers two categories of recommendations: measures to reduce the number of older prisoners, and short-term recommendations to ameliorate the conditions of confinement.

"We urge the California Legislature to follow the 2003 recommendation by the Legislative Analysts Office to save the state $9 million a year by releasing all nonviolent prisoners over 55," said Heidi Strupp. "We believe that the state should develop a geriatric parole policy to include older and disabled prisoners. State resources that now support the bloated prison budget should be redirected to care for these people in the community."

For those who may not be eligible for release, the report recommends, among other things, the creation of a geriatric status for older prisoners that would afford them age-specific assistance regarding housing and daily life activities, and a retirement option. The report, however, does not recommend separate geriatric prisons. The authors have concerns about CDCR's current failure, as detailed in the report, to provide appropriate care to the most vulnerable, disabled and seriously ill populations in prison, many of whom are elderly. Many of the report's conclusions can be extrapolated to older male prisoners as they face similar hardships of older female inmates.

Dignity Denied was funded by The California Endowment.

Authors: Heidi Strupp and Donna Willmott

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