John Hamilton

Geriatric Prisoners – Once Considered A Liability, Perhaps No Longer by John Hamilton –

Growing old behind bars has become the norm, rather than the exception. This is directly attributable to the disproportionate sentences being imposed and the abolishment of parole. According to a recent parole commission report, the fastest growing segment of the inmate population is first-time convicted, geriatric offenders. This statistical fact, combined with the increasingly ageing population already incarcerated, is creating a dire situation for the Virginia Dept. of Corrections (VADOC).

Virginia is one of Forty-five states that have statutory laws governing early geriatric conditional release for the elderly or infirm. The purpose for such provisions addresses problems of prison overcrowding, escalating medical costs, and skyrocketing budgets. When the laws were initially proffered, they were predicated on humanitarian grounds. The laws ultimately passed, presenting themselves almost as a pressure release valve of sorts, but there was also an underlying darkness behind their passing. It’s for the latter reasons that may explain why few are infrequently ever granted.

The Virginia Legislature enacted their geriatric conditional release law under statute 53.1-40.01 from the code of Virginia. It essentially states, any offender who reaches 60 years of age and served at least 10 years of their sentence, or, reached 65 and served at least 5 years of their sentence is eligible for consideration for early geriatric conditional release. The legislature relinquished remaining authority over to the Virginia Parole Board (VPB) to promulgate its own rules pertaining to release eligibility beyond the age range and time served stipulated by law. Up until 2015, those promulgated rules required impending death within 12 months. The diagnosis had to be verified by both a VADOC doctor and an outside, independent physician.

Following the code’s amendment and revision of the VPB’s promulgated rules, death was no longer a prerequisite for eligibility and annual review is now customary, unless you were convicted under the old law (for an offense committed prior to January 1, 1995) and parole eligible. However, it’s important to note that those offenders who still remain incarcerated under the old law remain eligible but their review is not automatic. Instead, every year they must file a separate petition requesting review and consideration. What’s the purpose of enacting such legislation and then failing to utilize it, especially when humanitarian reasons for imminent death would be justified?

What lingering trepidation could there still be remaining? For starters, by establishing the age eligibility requirements in the sixties, most offender’s relatives have sadly passed away by time they reach eligibility. If an offender has spent more than a decade in prison, most friends have abandoned them. With no residence to be released to, prospects of employment bleak, and no resources left at their disposal, many challenges loom over an offender’s bid for a successful reentry.

The VPB is on record that when evaluating an offender’s suitability for early release, the greatest deterrent is the risk an offender may pose to the community. But study, after study conducted on this issue is resolutely clear on the matter – when it comes to geriatric offenders – they pose little, if no risk at all to the community. In spite of all the humanitarian grounds for why deference should be given and geriatric conditional release granted, it rarely happens.

Virginia, unlike other states, allows for every offender to be eligible for geriatric conditional release unless you’ve been convicted of a class one felony (the harshest, most heinous crimes – capital murder, etc.). Just last year the chairperson for the VPB, Adrienne Bennett, acknowledged they were going to have to take a closer look at using geriatric conditional release in order to alleviate the escalating costs associated with caring for Virginia’s maturing inmate population. The reality is elderly prisoners are significantly less likely than younger offenders to break the law again. This fact is supported by endless studies that all espouse the same conclusion – geriatric conditional release is a safe alternative to other reform remedies.

Geriatric conditional release is not only the morally, compassionate, and just thing to do, but it’s also the fiscally responsible action to pursue. It’s common knowledge that the average inmate costs the state around $30,000 annually to house, feed, and provide adequate care. However, as offenders increase in age, so does the costs associated for their care.

It’s often an insurmountable task for prison medical staff to fulfill the constitutional requirement of providing the same standard of care as in the community. The cost of that continued care continues to climb. While the National Institute of Corrections estimates the amount doubles for prisoners 50 years of age and up, numerous other studies have determined those costs are substantially greater – upwards of three to nine times as much! And it mounts with every year that geriatric offender remains incarcerated.

I propose an amendment to the existing geriatric conditional release law. It’s my belief that if the age eligibility requirement were reduced, it would have a dramatically profound impact – fiscally for the government and its agencies effected, societally and economically for the greater community at-large, medically and personally for the geriatric prisoner. The proposed changes would simply lower the ages from 60 and 65, to now read: any offender who reaches 50 years of age and served at least 10 years of their sentence, or, reached 55 and served at least 5 years of their sentence is eligible for geriatric conditional release.

There is legal standing to establish this precedent. The VADOC conducted the VARI (Virginia Adult Re-Entry Initiative) study in which it clearly defined geriatric offenders. Departmental operating procedures also have articulated any offender who’s reached the age of fifty is considered a geriatric offender. With this understanding, any amendments to reducing the geriatric law to coincide with the proper age defined by the VADOC as a geriatric offender would only be logical. By doing so, it would practically eliminate all concerns associated with geriatric conditional release, thereby, increasing not only the probability for release, but the number of those eligible, and the likelihood of their successful reentry.

I strongly encourage readers to push for this amended legislation. It all starts by reaching out to your state representatives – in Virginia there are 100 state delegates and 40 senators. Dramatic change can only come to fruition if the constituents engage their elected leaders and demand the action they seek be sought.

Whether you desire to be an advocate or activist, both require your implicit participation. Remember that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Humanity can no longer afford to sit idly by and ignore the injustices taking place in society today. Regardless of which side of the aisle you stand for – humanity must prevail with humanitarianism leading the way for something greater than political propaganda and correctness. Accountability matters and must be preserved and personified.

John E. Hamilton, #1442949
Virginia Dept. of Corrections
Nottoway Correctional Center
2892 Schutt Rd / P.O. Box 488
Burkeville VA 23922

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