Provide people serving long sentences with access to rehabilitative living conditions and opportunities
As the nation has increased its use of long sentences over the last several decades, the population of older people behind bars has grown. This population is serving substantially more time in prison than correctional systems were designed or equipped to manage.1
Although prison admissions for both short and long sentences increased for older adults between 1994 and 2006 (and have since remained relatively stable), the proportional increase in the number of incarcerated people aged 55 and over is due to increases in time served—sometimes referred to as a “stacking” effect—and people serving long sentences aging in prison.3 To illustrate, although 10% of all incarcerated people in 2013 were aged 55 and older, nearly a third of those with the longest time served were at least 55 years old.4
In a national analysis of state prison populations, the Council on Criminal Justice found that in 2020, 63% of people in state prison were serving a sentence of 10 or more years, up from 46% in 2005. The growth was due largely to smaller numbers of people serving shorter sentences. Compared to other age groups, people aged 55 and over are the fastest-growing age group serving long sentences. Between 2005 and 2020 the share of people serving long sentences who were aged 55 and over grew from 8% to 20%, a 153% increase.
Long prison sentences tend to be associated with convictions for serious and violent crime or with extensive criminal histories, two characteristics that can exclude people from program participation because of common eligibility restrictions.5 Additionally, many people serving long sentences are housed in highly secure facilities where fewer programs are offered due to the challenges inherent to those spaces.6 When prison programs are available, people closest to release are typically prioritized for participation. While those serving long sentences constitute more than half (63% in 2020) of all incarcerated people, they account for a small share of overall prison releases (5% in 2020).7 These factors combine to cause a troubling result: few incarcerated people serving long sentences are able to access rehabilitative and educational programming that could help reduce their likelihood of recidivating and help them successfully return to their communities.
The Task Force recognizes the legitimate need for correctional professionals to concentrate resources on those closer to release; however, nearly all people serving long sentences will eventually be released.8 The Task Force believes it is essential for people serving long sentences to have access to programs and living conditions that not only prepare them for release, but also allow and help them to live meaningful lives while they are incarcerated. And while there is no doubt that most correctional professionals labor under a chronic lack of resources, the Task Force finds that people serving long sentences themselves constitute an important and mostly neglected resource that could help promote hope, desistance, and rehabilitation in the nation’s prisons.9
Fewer than 10 prison systems have implemented programs specifically for people serving long sentences in recent years, and none have been rigorously evaluated for effectiveness. Most programs focus on enhancing skills for adapting to prison life or mentoring younger incarcerated individuals, and are not designed to comprehensively meet the therapeutic, reentry, and other needs of people serving long sentences. This brief describes the specialized needs of individuals serving long sentences and explores opportunities to enhance outcomes through improved programming, both during custody and after release.
During long periods of incarceration, people can experience significant life changes. Some changes are brought on by the process of aging itself, including health problems and aging out of criminal behavior; others are triggered by events or dynamics that happen outside of prison, like the death of a family member or the gradual loss of connections to life outside and relationships, which are difficult to maintain while incarcerated. These experiences can be a source of isolation and despair, but for many people serving long sentences, they can also lead to personal transformation and redemption.10
Corrections professionals, researchers, and incarcerated people have long recognized that, despite the restrictions that they tend to live under, people serving long sentences have unique credibility to positively influence other incarcerated people.11 It is common for people serving long sentences not only to serve as role models and mentors, especially to younger incarcerated people, but also to become sources of institutional stability who help promote safe conditions for incarcerated people and staff.12
The Task Force recommends that, consistent with the need to promote safe and secure conditions for incarcerated populations and staff, corrections professionals assess the needs of those serving long sentences and design opportunities specifically for and with them. This should include tapping into to their capacities to positively influence other incarcerated people and help promote desistance, rehabilitation, redemption, and safer prisons and communities.
State corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons should ensure that people serving long sentences—consistent with the need to protect the safety of incarcerated populations and staff, as well as the community—can access basic privileges afforded others in institutional custody, including those related to visitation, work, and programming.
State corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons should review policies and procedures affecting program access for people serving long sentences and ensure that they facilitate, rather than unduly restrict, their access to programming.
- State corrections agencies and the Bureau of Prisons should review security and housing classifications of people serving long sentences on a regular and ongoing basis to assess whether an individual can be moved to a lower security facility with more program access.
State corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons should assess their capacity to provide people serving long sentences with prison and reentry programming designed to meet the unique needs of this population, including those related to aging, health, and the effects of long-term imprisonment, as well as policies that facilitate program access and engagement by people serving long sentences, and subsequently develop plans to bridge identified programming gaps.
State corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons should ensure that programs for people serving long sentences are evidence-based and adhere to the principles of effective correctional intervention. Key considerations include:
- All programs should have clear and measurable delivery and outcome objectives
- The design, implementation, and ongoing delivery of all programs should be subject to a rigorous quality assurance process
- All programs should undergo independent performance review or evaluation on a periodic basis. This should include consistent quantitative analysis and qualitative feedback from program administrators and participants aimed at evaluating the programs based on their own outcome objectives.
State corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons should ensure that people who are currently or formerly incarcerated have the opportunity to participate in the design and delivery of programming for people serving long sentences, consistent with the need to promote safe and secure conditions for incarcerated population and staff.
State corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons should ensure that security, clinical, and other staff receive cross-training on security and programming issues so that common goals are recognized and collaboratively pursued.
State legislatures and Congress should provide adequate funding to support the adoption, staffing, and implementation of prison and reentry programming for people serving long sentences as an investment in recidivism reduction, public safety, and safety within the prison environment.
State and federal authorities should support data collection and research of the following questions:
- Number and share of people sentenced to 10 years or more currently in programming
- The effects that long periods of incarceration have upon individuals’ mental and physical health
- How long periods of incarceration affect incarcerated individuals throughout the course of their imprisonment, focusing especially on the impact on desistance and mental health
State and federal authorities should support the collection and publication of annual data on the number of incarcerated individuals who applied for geriatric parole/release under state law or policy, the number of people who were granted release, the number denied and reasons for denial, recidivism rates for those granted release, and demographic information, including race, ethnicity, age, and gender.
- State legislatures and Congress should review existing statutory provisions for the medical and geriatric release of people serving long sentences and seek ways to improve compassionate release provisions that allow for medical or geriatric release when an individual is not a threat to public safety.