02/14/2006 06:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How We Treat Those Who Have Transgressed

Imagine for a moment that you are 70 years old, and to get in and out of bed every night you must scramble onto the top of a bunk-bed. Imagine that at this age, or older, no matter how infirm you are, you must walk long distances in order to find a meal and your job requires strenuous physical labor. Imagine that you are periodically forced to drop to the ground, remove your clothes, and that you are punished for moving with insufficient expeditiousness.

Such is the daily grind of the more than one hundred thousand people over the age of 55 who are incarcerated in this county. By the year 2022, if we keep going as we are, if we keep our mandatory minimum sentencing laws and our Three Strikes law in place, if we hold fast to our refusal to release prisoners eligible for parole, we will have 30,000 elderly inmates, in the state of California alone.

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an advocacy group that works on behalf of incarcerated parents, children, family members and people at risk for incarceration, recently issued a study entitled Dignity Denied: The Price of Imprisoning Older Women in California. During the course of their research they found that it costs the tax-payers 70,000 dollars to incarcerate an elderly prisoner. These women often live eight to a cell, with no allowance made for their age and infirmity in assigning bunks. They are forced to work long after the normal age of retirement, out in all weather picking up trash and sweating in industrial kitchens and laundries. Access to the poor medical care available is restricted, and as many as half the women surveyed reports having had a serious accident. They fall while struggling into their top bunks, they collapse on the job, they fall easy prey to younger more vigorous prisoners.

The solutions to this shameful problem is not difficult, it's simply a matter of legislative will. We must reduce the current numbers of older prisoners. We must develop alternatives to incarceration that would allow older prisoners to return to the community. The entire community would benefit from these efforts. In 2003, the California Legislative Analyst's Office suggested the release of all non-violent prisoners over the age of 55, thereby saving the state $9 million every year. That potential savings figure has surely risen, along with the number of incarcerated elderly rises.

We also must, if we think of ourselves as a decent society, improve the day-to day conditions for those who remain behind bars. It would be simple enough to develop a geriatric work policy that would allow older prisoners to stop working at a reasonable age. We can make simple accommodations in housing, we can institute rules that mandate that prisoners over 55 not be assigned top bunks.

There are other things we should certainly do. In California, we should end the $5 co-payment prisoners have to pay to see a doctor; we should develop pre-release plans that allow prisoners to apply for public benefits before they are released so they will not be homeless or without medical benefits when they leave prison.

A society's values are reflected best by how it treats its most unfortunate, and by how it treats those it determines have transgressed. We in America fail by even the most generous estimation. Shame on us all.