Illinois’ aging incarcerated population is on the rise: although prison populations are shrinking nationwide, the number of aging people in penal institutions has grown 280% since 1999. In Illinois, where parole was abolished in 1978, the problem posed by aging people in prison is even worse: more than 12% of Illinois’ 40,000 inmates are 55 or older. That number is a dramatic increase from in 2015, when only 8.5% of Illinois’ prison population was over the age of 55. Without corrective action, 30% of the prison population will be over the age of 55 by 2030, a percentage that will likely be higher in Illinois.
Housing aging people in prison is extraordinarily expensive: despite having a 2018 budget of nearly $1.6 billion, IDOC needed an an additional $420 million to cover the last two months of operation in that fiscal year. It costs two to five times as much to incarcerate aging people in prison, meaning Illinois spends between $247,511,400 and $618,778,500 every year on aging individuals, approximately one third of its overall budget. Illinois will spend $179 million on prison medical care this year, much of which was directed towards chronically ill inmates. Aging people in prison are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from a chronic illness than the rest of the population, suggesting that a dramatic reduction in the aging inmate population will lead to a marked reduction in expenditures.
Despite its enormous cost, incarcerating aging and elderly people does not advance public safety. Aging people who are released after serving extremely long sentences have a recidivism rate that is close to zero. In Maryland, 188 elderly people were released, all of whom had been incarcerated for at least 30 years. Five years later, the group’s rearrest rate is 3%. Because aging individuals are uniquely at risk for victimization within prison settings, the continued incarceration of aging inmates likely produces more crime, and more cost, than would their release.
This incredible short film about the Unger defendants helps explain the urgency of fighting for the release of aging people from prison: