When Prisons Become Nursing Homes: New at Reason

When Americans think of federal prisons, they probably don’t picture nursing homes. But maybe they should. Thanks to the long mandatory sentences that come with many drug offenses, elderly inmates have emerged as the fastest-growing sector of the federal prison population.

As of June 2017, there were nearly 35,000 federal inmates over the age of 51; 10,000 were over the age of 60. Many of these prisoners suffer the same illnesses afflicting the elderly population in free America, from heart disease to Type 2 diabetes to cancer. The difference is that elderly prisoners receive care while shackled to a bed.

Many aging and sick federal prisoners die under horrid conditions—but they needn’t. In 1984, Congress empowered the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to petition for the early release of inmates in “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. This power is formally called “compassionate release.” It’s perfectly legal and reasonably safe: Older prisoners seldom resume their criminal behavior upon release, and terminally ill prisoners almost never do.

Yet the BOP uses compassionate release sparingly. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—which is often fatal when treated by even the country’s finest physicians—Michael Hodge, who received a 20-year sentence for marijuana trafficking, asked to be allowed to die at home with his wife. He was denied without explanation.


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