By Sundiata Acoli
SF Bay View
Health care costs are soaring and have become unaffordable for many families. It is no different for the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), except they’re required by law to provide medical care to their wards.
Although much of prison health care is inadequate, many of its youthful captives can at least squeak by on what’s presently provided. Not so for those over 50 years of age, most of whom are beset by the common old age infirmities: high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, clogged arteries, heart disease, cancer and the need for body part replacements.
California has the largest prison population in the U.S. plus the highest health care costs and spends $98,000 to $138,000 per year for each prisoner over 50. (See “Study Finds Record Numbers of Inmates Serving Life” by Solomon Moore, New York Times, July 2009, page A20.) An Aug. 11, 2009, New York Times editorial noted that just days before a Chino, California, prison riot, a three-judge panel ordered the state to reduce its 150,000-plus prison population by about 40,000 in the next two years as the only way to bring its prison health care system up to constitutional standards.
The editorial concluded: “The riot at Chino and the federal court’s ruling contain the same message for states everywhere: They must come up with a smart way to reduce prison populations and they must do it quickly.”
More prisoners today are serving life sentences than ever before. They are called “Lifers,” their numbers have quadrupled since 1984 to over 140,000 and they’ve become a major driving force behind the explosion of health care costs in prisons. Many Lifers are over 50 and most are parole eligible, while the remainder are doing life without parole (LWOP.)
One reason for the ballooning of life sentences is the Three Strikes You’re Out mandatory minimums, 100 to 1 ratio of crack to powder cocaine sentences, children sentenced to LWOP – in clear violation of international law – and other harsh edicts of the law and order climate of the last several decades.
The other reason for the balloon is the unrectified racial residue that has accompanied America’s justice system since antebellum days. Two thirds of prisoners serving life sentences are Latino and Black and nearly half of those serving life are Black. In 13 states Blacks make up 60 percent of the Lifers. In New York state, only 17 percent of prisoners serving life are White.
Many Lifers over 50 have already done 20, even 30 years or more and some are 60, even 70 years old and more. Crime has been decreasing for the last decade or two and ALL indicators show that elderly prisoners, once released, rarely commit another crime and are least likely to return to prison.
So it is self-evident that the smartest and quickest way to begin reducing prison health care costs and prison overcrowding is to release aged and infirmed Lifers and LWOPs whose age plus years served equal a fixed number – say 70 years, for example – which could be further reduced in proportion to the seriousness of the Lifer’s illness.
Such a release process would not only be smart but ethical and prisoners’ families, loved ones and the public would be even wiser to urge their Congress member to put such a prison cost cutting bill into effect immediately.
More info on Sundiata at: www.sundiataacoli.org
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MARGARET J PLEWS
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Established: July 18, 2009
Editor: Peggy Plews
This site is to monitor conditions in Arizona's criminal justice system, as well as offer some critical analysis of the prison industrial complex from a prison abolitionist/anarchist's perspective. If you're unfamiliar with prison abolition, check out Critical Resistance. I'm a freelance writer and human rights activist, and have no legal training, FYI.
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