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Our Federal Prisons Resemble Nursing Homes With Razor Wire

November 11, 2015

“Our federal prisons are starting to resemble nursing homes surrounded with razor wire,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

The 1980’s and 1990’s “war on drugs” regime is having costly consequences with the elderly population in America, with startling consequences in a system designed to house the young and viable, not the old and infirm. How does one report for role call when one can’t hear the command? Or maybe the person can’t walk and so struggles with wheelchairs and plight that all elderly face at a certain point, limited mobility. The federal war on drugs becomes a farce when faced with multiple issues for the healthcare struggles of the elderly:

“There are countless ways that the aging inmates, some with dementia, bump up against the prison culture,” she said. “It is difficult to climb to the upper bunk, walk up stairs, wait outside for pills, take showers in facilities without bars and even hear the commands to stand up for count or sit down when you’re told.”

For years, state prisons followed the federal government’s lead in enacting harsh sentencing laws. In 2010, there were some 246,000 prisoners age 50 and older in state and federal prisons combined, with nearly 90 percent of them held in state custody, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report titled “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.”

If a person doesn’t even remember the crime he or she committed due to dementia, is it really fair to keep them incarcerated for something they literally “knew not what they did?” Are people trained in corrections and criminal justice capacities really trained to care for the elderly and infirm?

In his “cell” on a recent day, Michael E. Hodge lay in a hospital-like bed where he spent his days mostly staring at the television. A prison official had just helped him get out of his wheelchair. A prison employee delivered his meals. He could hardly keep his eyes open.

In 2000, Hodge was convicted on charges of distribution and possession of marijuana and possessing a gun, and was sentenced to 20 years. When a Washington Post reporter visited Hodge in mid-April, he was dying of liver cancer. He died April 18, prison officials said.

“Tell my wife I love her,” said Hodge, who said he was in great pain.

“Why are we keeping someone behind bars who is bedridden and needs assistance to get out of bed and feed and clothe himself?” asked Fellner, of Human Rights Watch. “What do we gain from keeping people behind bars at an enormous cost when they no longer pose any danger to the public if they were released?”

Is there a human rights violation in keeping nonviolent offenders in prison when they can’t remember what they did? They were part of drug bust and serving 20 years in prison for it? At what point does the federal government have a responsibility to account for its inappropriate sentencing guidelines?

And, while there is a huge human rights cost, there is also a tremendous financial burden on taxpayers to take responsibility for the federal government’s inappropriate sentencing mandates.

The average cost of housing federal inmates nearly doubles for aging prisoners. While the cost of a prisoner in the general population is $27,549 a year, the price tag associated with an older inmate who needs more medical care, including expensive prescription drugs and treatments, is $58,956, Justice Department officials say.

At Federal Medical Center Devens, a prison near Boston, 115 aging inmates with kidney failure receive treatment inside a dialysis unit.

“Renal failure is driving our costs up,” said Ted Eichel, the health-services administrator for Devens. “It costs $4 million to run this unit, not counting medications, which is half our budget.” Devens also employs 60 nurses, along with social workers, dietitians, psychologists, dentists and physical therapists. They look like medical workers, except for the cluster of prison keys they’re carrying.

Down the hallway, inmates in wheelchairs line up to receive their daily pills and insulin shots.

Although the prison houses about 1,000 low- to high-security inmates, they are not handcuffed or shackled, except when being transferred outside the facility. A golf cart has been redesigned into a mini-ambulance.


At what point are mandatory sentencing guidelines taking away fundamental rights? In the case of another prisoner, for whom a “drug bust” by DEA agents was completely manipulated, the judge, jury and public spoke out about the sentencing mandates, but the man is still in prison, and on dialysis and was never convicted of a violent crime:

“There’s no doubt that that’s a harsh penalty,” said U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew during the sentencing hearing. “But that’s what the statute says, and I don’t think I have any alternative but to do that.”

“I don’t have a whole lot of discretion here,” she said at another point.

After Harrison and the others were sentenced, several of the jurors expressed shock to learn how long those convicted were to spend behind bars.

If I would have been given the right to not only judge the facts in this case, but also the law and the actions taken by the government, the prosecutor, local and federal law enforcement officers connected in this case would be in jail and not the defendants,” juror Patrick L. McNeil wrote.

Six jurors signed a letter requesting a new trial be ordered, saying that if they had been told by the court that they could have found that the government had entrapped the defendants, they would have found them not guilty.

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