We are dealing with convicted criminals, a point that is not diminished. However, cost isn’t the only reason to rethink how the DOC handles its graying population.
Often, prisons are neither safe, medically sound, nor humane for the aged and infirm, according to national studies like Confronting Confinement, a 2006 report from the Commission on Safety and Abuse of The Vera Institute, and Old Behind Bars, a 2012 Human Rights Watch report.
In Delaware, assistant public defender Lisa Schwind—a nurse and attorney involved with inmate health since joining the Public Defender’s Office 25 years ago—says that DOC health care has come a long way since federal intervention began more than six years ago, but there’s still room for improvement.
Right now, DOC staff have some latitude to accommodate prisoners, and they often do, though no explicit geriatric policy exists.
Take extreme temperatures. It can be tough to get warm during the winter because there’s a strict limit on clothing and bedding, and those caught with more are subjected to penalty. Heat stroke is a risk during summer. That’s why geriatric inmates at Vaughn Correctional Center are often housed in two air conditioned units. But not always.
Meal times present challenges to those with mobility problems, says Amir, an ex-offender who spoke on condition that only his first name be used so he could continue successfully rebuilding his life after a combined 13 years in Delaware prisons. A quarter-mile hike from cell to chow hall and a narrow 10-minute window to eat could cost an inmate his meal. Correctional officers routinely let wheelchair-bound prisoners cut to the front of the line. But there’s no policy to ensure it.
What Delaware’s prison system needs, according to advocates and officials inside and outside the system, is new long-term care facilities, and policies that address geriatric needs inside prison walls. Some thought, they say, should be given to better utilizing existing “early release” laws for those who are low-risk for committing new crimes.