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Old And Facing Federal Prison

Oct 7, 2023

By Walter Pavlo

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) incarcerates nearly 160,000 inmates in its 122 institutions. Of those, less than 3% (4,544) are over the age of 65, many of them have been in prison for many years. However, older inmates, particularly incoming white-collar offenders, pose challenging issues for the BOP.

According to the BOP, most of those in federal prison, nearly half, are in for drug offenses, and 22% are there for weapons/explosives/arson ... few of these type of crimes involve senior citizens. However, older Americans who participate in fraud can face years in prison similar to those with drug or other offenses. With their incarceration comes additional challenges for the BOP that struggles with a myriad of problems including shortages of staff.

While the BOP has seven medical centers, it is not known for its world renowned medical care. Those medical centers are used for chronically ill inmates, many of whom have been in the system for years and were moved from other prisons across the federal system. BOP medical centers provide services like chemotherapy, dialysis and even hospice for those near death. The bed space is limited and many inmates who are serving long sentences have no choice but to wait at their current institution until a bed opens at a medical center. For those older defendants, many of whom are white-collar minimum security inmates, who are old and sick and just going into the BOP to serve a sentence, they take up this valuable and expensive bed space at medical centers. As Hugh Hurwitz, former Acting Director at the BOP, wrote in The Hill recently, “... in 2013, the BOP spent approximately 19 percent of its total budget to incarcerate older adults; a number that is surely higher today.”

In recent years, the BOP has faced growing scrutiny over its treatment of elderly inmates, a population that has been steadily increasing within the U.S. prison system. Recognizing these challenges, the BOP implemented the Elderly Offender Program (EOP), a pilot program modified and expanded under the First Step Act which was signed into law in December 2018. The EOP aimed to transfer elderly inmates to home confinement for a larger part of their sentence rather than have them incarcerated at correctional facilities. The costs of medical care in institutions comes with the added costs of doctor visits in the community which are supervised by BOP staff that are in short supply.

The EOP was designed to reduce all of these costs but the program came to an end in September 2023, but many are calling for its renewal. Budget constraints, administrative changes, and shifts in policy priorities left the EOP hanging in the balance. This termination has raised concerns among advocates and experts who believe that the program’s end is a step in the wrong direction.

Most elderly inmates pose a lower risk of reoffending, making them less of a threat to society. Consideration of the medical needs may be something that defendants use to mitigate for a lower sentence, but if a sentence in imposed, the BOP has no choice but to take on the responsibility of care for the older inmate.

Renewing the EOP is a humane response to the needs of elderly inmates. There are strict requirements for alternatives, such as home confinement, that can limit access to computers and restrict movement in the community. Such requirements are in place for those who come out of US Penitentiaries, the highest level security in the BOP.