By: Hannah Holland
Last Thursday, March 8, Dr. Kathleen O’Shea delivered an eye opening account of the widely undocumented trials that elderly women face in jail. O’Shea has dedicated her life to voicing the concerns of those that have gone unrepresented in the faulty jail system, and as a result suffer abuses no person should.
She began the seminar through an emotionally charged video that briefly followed the accounts of a small cross-section of older inmates. All of those featured in the clip were in such poor health that they were incapable of taking care of themselves. They all suffered from an array of health and mental defects, ranging from ovarian cancer to Parkinson’s disease. The sad, sullen faces and withered bodies of those in the video made it almost impossible to believe that these people had committed life-sentencing crimes. As the movie concluded, O’Shea explained that even though infectious diseases run rampant in jail, medicine is frequently withheld as punishment and undiagnosed conditions are common.
The number of inmates who are incapable of self-reliance is increasing exponentially as those that were incarcerated during the “hard on crime” administrations of the 1980s and 90s age in jail. Specifically, the influx of older inmates can also be attested to the formation of the ‘Three Strikes You’re Out Rule’ and minimum sentencing, which requires that persons convicted of certain crimes must serve a minimum number of years in prison. The Three Strikes rule means that any person convicted of three felonies may end up facing life sentences. This law, passed in the early 1990s, helped to incarcerate serious habitual offenders.
While this, in theory, would appear to have a positive outcome, the increased level of those sentenced to life was overwhelming for jails on both a financial and physical level. Minimum sentencing was met with the similar consequences.
One woman in particular that O’Shea had become particularly close with had been sentenced to ten years, under minimum sentencing. Her nephew began dealing drugs when she would leave the house for her daily lung dialysis. As a result, she was sentenced as an accessory to the drug deal. She was so physically small that the shackles used to restrain her while she received her lung dialysis were so big they would fall off. That does not seem like a woman who should be confined to jail and shackles. While this is admittedly situational, Dr. O’Shea stated that the fact that it happened in the first place is simply unacceptable.
If not from a moral perspective, the incentive to move these clearly benign elderly from jail proves to be entirely cost efficient. In 1985, $92.4 million was set aside in the state of Connecticut to fund jails that held 5,300 inmates. In 2010, however, a whopping $709 million was used to subsidize jails that held an increased 19,000 inmates. Furthermore, in 2011 14.8 percent of prisoners were considered to be ‘elderly,’ while in 2030 a projected 1/3 of all those jailed will be elderly. According to O’Shea, jails, in every sense, are indisputably a money pit. She argues that using that money to support the high cost health needs of geriatric inmates who are harmless to the point of reliance on others is absurd.
Advances in inmate-trained hospice care have come in the wake of advocacy for the elderly incarcerated. Considering the elderly need so much medical attention many organizations have begun training younger and more able-bodies inmates to aid them. While this issue has not been resolved, changes must be made to help the plight of the elderly in jail.
Dr. O’Shea concluded her seminar by stating that regardless of what crimes may have been committed, no human being deserves to be denied basic human rights.