According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of people incarcerated in prisons who were age 55 or older increased 400% between 1993 and 2013 nationwide, with those age 55 or older making up 10 percent of the total prison population in 2013. West Virginia has seen a similar trend in recent years. According to the West Virginia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the percentage of people age 50 and older in West Virginia prisons has nearly doubled over the past 17 years, from 12.8 percent in 2002 to 20.5 percent in 2019 (while the national Bureau of Justice Statistics breaks down age groups with 55 as a cutoff, West Virginia’s state data uses age 50).
The care of elderly people can be costly for prison systems; these populations tend to have more intensive health care needs, which can be difficult to address in in correctional facilities. And during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, older people in prisons have faced heightened risk of complications and death from the virus. This is why states across the country safely decarcerated at the onset of the pandemic, letting out individuals at high risk of COVID-19 complications and people who had little time left of their sentences.
But on June 30, 2020 after the state had taken proactive measures to reduce prison population by releasing some people in prisons and reducing jail intakes, the percentage of people who were 50 and older in prisons in West Virginia had jumped to its highest share—24.5 percent—nearly double the percentage of that in 2002. It is difficult to analyze the increase without knowing the backgrounds and underlying offenses of the people who were discharged early from prisons and those who remained. But at the surface, the share of the population that was in prison months into the pandemic was older than ever before and at higher risk of severe COVID-19 complications.
Of the 15 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in West Virginia correctional facilities, one-third happened at Saint Marys Correctional Center, which tends to hold chronically ill and geriatric people. If the number of deaths that are pending further information are included, that number jumps to nearly 40 percent of all statewide deaths attributable to COVID-19 happening at that single facility.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons in West Virginia had the second highest mortality rate in the country.
It is important for policymakers to understand the consequences of maintaining an older prison population. The state may be punishing past the point of rehabilitation. Many criminologists and other criminal justice experts have long hypothesized that people tend to age out of crime by middle age, so someone who received a long sentence 20 years ago may be unlikely to recidivate if they were released. Both the 2010 West Virginia Law Institute Sentencing Report and the Pew Center have noted that West Virginia gives longer sentences for some crimes than peer states. As the state’s population continues to both grow older and shrink and corrections costs increase, lawmakers should take the necessary steps to reduce the number of elderly people in prison, for economic, public health, and moral reasons.