This is what tough-on-crime looks like 25 years later. It's a 74-year-old inmate being taken to a hospital because his medical needs exceed the services available in prison.
In 1988, the United States spent about $11 billion on the entire corrections system. Today, we spend about $16 billion annually on the aging prisoner population alone. That's because while the total number of people incarcerated in this country grew by 400 percent between 1980 and 2010, the population of prisoners age 55 and older grew by nearly 1,400 percent. By 2030, it's estimated a full third of America's prison population will be age 50 or older.
An ACLU report released this week, "At America's Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly," details the rising number of American prisoners above age 50 and the high cost of keeping them in prison for life.
The aging of America's prisoners extends to Montana, too.
According to the Montana Department of Corrections 2011 Biennial Report, 41 percent of Montana's inmates in 2010 were 40 or older. That's up from 34 percent in 2001 and 29 percent in 1997.
This graying of prisoner ranks has nothing to do with a senior citizen crime wave. It has everything to do with tough on crime and "War on Drugs" policies instituted in the 1980s and 1990s that sentenced low-level offenders to long prison terms for nonviolent crimes.
Elderly prisoners pose little threat of reoffending and cost the government dearly in terms of housing requirements and medical care -- corrections money that could be used elsewhere.
"You actually create victims by not letting the old guys go and using your resources for rehabilitation on the ones that are going to get out," says Burl Cain, warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, in an ACLU video about the challenges of caring for elderly inmates.
It's time for common-sense sentencing reforms.