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This Chart Shows Why The Prison Population Is So Vulnerable to COVID-19

As coronavirus spreads through Florida, Jack McFarland is urging officials at Madison Correctional Facility to prepare a separate dorm for himself and other older prisoners. At 64, McFarland has spent the last 28 years in prison, and his age puts him at a higher risk of serious complications should he become infected.

The Sunshine State has more than 300 cases, and McFarland is worried about guards and staff bringing coronavirus into the prison. As the threat intensifies, he fears older people behind bars are being left to fend for themselves.

“They have no plans for us older guys,” he wrote to The Marshall Project, using the prison’s email system. “They don’t care anything about your health. We older guys just have to take care of ourselves any way we can.”

McFarland is one of a growing number of older people incarcerated across the country. The percentage of people in state prisons who are 55 and older more than tripled between 2000 and 2016, a Marshall Project analysis of data from the National Corrections Reporting Program found. Nearly 150,000 people incarcerated in state correctional facilities were 55 or older in 2016, the most recent year for which detailed data is available. For the first time, older adults make up a larger share of the state prison population than people from 18 to 24. Similarly, 11 percent of the federal prison population—more than 20,000 people—is 56 or older, according to Bureau of Prisons data, which is collected separately from the state prisoner data.

The risk of coronavirus to incarcerated seniors is high. Their advanced age, coupled with the challenges of practicing even the most basic disease prevention measures in prison, is a potentially lethal combination. To make matters worse, correctional facilities are often ill-equipped to care for aging prisoners, who are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions than the general public. As the virus spreads into the prisons, advocates and public health officials are urging corrections departments to release their aging prisoners.

Why are there so many older adults behind bars? Some scholars point to harsh sentencing laws imposed in the 1980s and 1990s as a factor.

Ned Benton, a professor of public management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the popularity of “tough on crime” politics led many statehouses to enact legislation such as three-strikes and “truth in sentencing” laws. Three strike laws significantly increased sentences for people convicted of felonies, and truth in sentencing measures made sure people stay in prison for a long time before they become eligible for parole.

Florida, for example, led the nation in 2016 with one of the highest percentages of aging prisoners. Roughly 13,600 people, or 14 percent of the state’s prison population, were 55 or older, according to The Marshall Project’s analysis. For decades the state has used mandatory minimums and sentence enhancements to send people to prison for long stretches without the possibility of parole.

The Florida Department of Corrections said Thursday it is closely monitoring the spread of coronavirus, noting that there are currently no confirmed cases in the prison system. Should someone become infected, the department says it is “fully prepared to handle any potential cases.”

What was lost in the national conversation of “tough on crime,” Benton said, are the human and financial consequences of letting a generation of people grow old in prison. In 2016, a quarter of the oldest people in all state prisons were on death row or serving life sentences, and another quarter were serving sentences of 25 years or longer, The Marshall Project found.

Research shows that seniors in prison have more health issues than their younger counterparts on the outside. They suffer more often from chronic health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, and they’re more likely to have limited mobility and increased mental health issues. The stress of prison life, coupled with a lack of access to quality medical care, means that many prisoners age faster than they would in the free world. By age 50, incarcerated people tend to suffer from health problems more commonly seen in people many years older.

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