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aging in prison in virginia
how the commonwealth can address a growing concern
December 2015

Catherine MacDonald

A report prepared in collaboration with KB Concepts’ Research Division.

about this report 1
a growing population 2
the abolishment of parole: unforseen effects 3
how “truth in sentencing” became law
newly convicted prisoners age 50+
defining “geriatric”
parole under the current system: overlooked issues 6
low recidivism among older offenders
aging in prison: minimal care at high cost 9
chronic health issues among older prisoners
reentry issues 12
a portrait of deerfield 14
policy priorities 16

About this report

About KB Concepts
Branding, social media and marketing
services based in Arlington, Va., with
with a special focus on great ideas for
good causes.
kbconcepts.com

Author

Catherine MacDonald is a gerontologist
based in Richmond, Va.
macdonaldcs8@gmail.com
Tom Nash assisted with this report. He is
an award-winning journalist who lives in
Richmond.

1 aging in prison in virginia

The growing population of the aging incarcerated in the
Commonwealth of Virginia’s prisons is costing an ever increasing slice of limited state funds and yielding little benefit to
public safety.
This report outlines the Virginia’s aging state prison population and an underutilized and mismanaged geriatric release
system, which could provide substantial financial relief to the
state in addition to minimizing harm done to offenders who
researchers agree pose little risk to society. The analysis focuses
on prisoners convicted prior to the “Truth in Sentencing” reforms currently under review by the McAuliffe Administration.
It is time to reevaluate decades-old policies that have
failed. This report presents a look at the role “Truth in Sentencing” has played in the increase in older prisoner populations in
Virginia, the false promise of the Parole Board’s geriatric release
system, the negative consequences faced by older prisoners
who are released, and the conditions faced by the vast majority
of older prisoners. Its findings conclude with recommendations
for how the Parole Board, Department of Corrections and executive and legislative branches should work together to rewrite
the narrative of Virginia’s growing aging prison population.
As the general population ages, communities across the
U.S. can look forward to the valuable assets older adults bring
to society. By maintaining the system that leads to poor outcomes among the older incarcerated, Virginia is doing its communities a great injustice. This report presents the following
recommendations to alleviate these issues:
- Parole should be re-established in Virginia.
- The geriatric release age in Virginia should be
lowered to 50, in line with Virginia Department
of Corrections’ own definition of the term.
- The process to apply for geriatric release should
be more accessible.
- Judicial discretion used for convicted offenders
age 50 and over, including alternatives to incarceration.
- Increased transparency from the Parole Board.

Growing population
In 2014, there were 7,202 prisoners in Virginia
over the age of 50.1 Deerfield Correctional Center,
built especially to house elder inmates in Virginia, has
seen new wings added as its population surged from
400 to 1,000 beds -- with a long waiting list of inmates
stuck in facilities that do not have the resources to
meet their medical needs. And while the population
of prisoners under age 50 has shown small declines,
data provided by the Department of Corrections
shows the population of prisoners over 50 is growing
steadily. In other words, even as we champion ways
to keep younger people out of prison, those already
there are facing the inevitable challenges of aging in a
high stress environment with few resources.2
That growth mirrors what other groups are
tracking in prison populations across the country. The
Human Rights Watch found that between 2007 and
2010 the nationwide prisoner population aged over
65 grew by 63 percent to a total of 26,200. Human
Rights Watch also found that between 1995 and 2010,
the number of state and federal prisoners age 55 and
older quadrupled (growing by 282 percent) even as
the total number of prisoners grew by only 42 percent. By 2014, the population had quadrupled again.
The group found there were approximately 124,400
prisoners age 55 or older.3
Researchers are only beginning to understand
more about how when it comes to age, it’s different
on the inside. By the time a prisoner reaches the age
of 50, they are often saddled with the chronic health
problems effects equivalent to a significantly older
person living in the general population.4 More chronic
health issues means more spent on treatments, and
an increased likelihood of poor outcomes, even if the
1
SR Offender Population Trends FY2010-FY2014 VADOC Statistical Analysis & Forecast Unit, 2014.
2
http://www.vda.virginia.gov/2015email_pdfdocs/
Dept%20of%20Corrections%20Aging%20Report%202014.pdf
3
https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/01/27/old-behindbars/aging-prison-population-united-states
4
OMEGA, Vol. 52(3) 199-216, 2005-2006 AGING PRISONERS’ CONCERNS TOWARD DYING IN PRISON RONALD
H. ADAY
3 aging in prison in virginia

individual is eventually released. Older prisoners have
five times as many visits to health facilities per year
than similarly aged people who are not incarcerated,
and any treatment they receive beyond the prison
gates carries additional costs in time and travel by correctional staff.5

Older prisoners have 5 times as many visits to
health facilities a year than similarly aged people
who are not incarcerated.
As both the McAuliffe administration and the
General Assembly reevaluate the policies and procedures behind what has been deemed “mass incarceration” following reforms of the 1990s pushed by both
major political parties across the country, one of the
most overlooked and underaddressed issues is the
increasing population of prisoners in Virginia who do
not need to be there and yet are losing their ability to
reenter society effectively with each passing day.

The Abolishment of Parole:
Unforeseen Effects on Aging Prisoners
The era of mass incarceration in the United
States began in the 1980s with the War on Drugs,
declared by the Reagan Administration and fought
through police departments across the country and
disseminated through the emerging 24-hour news
cycle.6 But even 30 years later, those origins remain
unexamined as Virginia explores parole abolition and
sentencing reform 20 years later through Governor
Terry McAuliffe’s Commission on Parole Review.
The 19-member board, which will make
recommendations in December, is comprised of
members from across the spectrum of legislators, law
enforcement officers, public defenders and other policy experts. Based on the statements that emerged
from their public hearing process, it was clear there is
a stark divide between law enforcement and policy
5

http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/Its-about-time-aging-prisoners-increasing-costs-and-geriatric-release.pdf
6
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

makers on the issue of whether parole should have
been abolished and whether it should be reinstated.
The most clear example came from interactions between one of the Truth in Sentencing Act’s
key proponents, then State Senator Ken Stolle, and
his fellow commission members. Citing the Senate
Finance Committee Report’s findings that the act was
effective in reducing crime and prison population
questioned, Stolle vehemently defended both the
institution of the law and those who developed it.
Stolle also butted heads with a representative
from the Arlington-based Charles Koch Foundation,
who appeared in strong support of the restitution of
parole as a means to both deter crime and reduce
prison population. But one aspect of the merits -- or
difficulties -- of abolishing parole that received comparatively little attention was the effect on a prison
population that will continue to age in the prison system. Reviewing the history of how “Truth in Sentencing” came about, however, we see that such effects
were little understood at the time and continue to be
downplayed even today.

How ‘Truth in Sentencing’ Became Law
In addition to rapid technological innovation
and a booming economy, the early to mid-90s can
be characterized as a time when it became politically
impossible to appear as anything other than “tough
on crime.”
Nationally, the apex of the idea that the
judicial system needed to help stem rising recidivism
rates and a perceived drug epidemic could be seen
in then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s 1992
campaign and subsequent early days in office. The
so-called “three strikes” policy became law, as did a
policy shift toward longer prison sentences for drug
related offenses.7 The bi-partisan 1994 Violent Crime
Control and Law Enforcement Act set national standards in both harsh penalties and political consensus
that made action on more local levels not only easy
but a central issue in political campaigns.
7

http://www.businessinsider.com/bill-clinton-admits-his-presidency-contributed-to-mass-incarceration-2015-5

4 aging in prison in virginia

Virginia gubernatorial candidate George Allen
premised much of his 1993 campaign on crime, and
denying parole to serious offenders.8 In debates with
Democratic candidate and Virginia Attorney General
Mary Sue Terry, he often compared his desire for parole reform with his opponent’s platform. Most damning, he said, was that under her tenure as attorney
general between 1988 and 1991 violent crime rose 26
percent. “Bill Clinton’s campaign said during the election last year, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ “ Allen was
quoted in the Washington Post as saying. “Well, this
year, the issue is violent crime and I say to my opponent, ‘It’s liberal parole laws, Mary Sue!’”9
As Terry touted her own role in being “tough
on crime,” her campaign maintained that prison overcrowding and overflowing budgets made Allen’s platform untenable even as she said she favored allowing
judges to increase sentences imposed by juries. In
speaking to the Virginia Sheriffs Association, he made
his position clear: “The well-worn Democratic excuse
that long-term incarceration of repeat criminals would
be too expensive simply has no basis in fact.”10
Allen took 58 percent of the vote, a high
margin for Virginia.11 Following his election, he established a Governor’s Commission on Parole Abolition and Sentencing Reform. Those findings were
worked into the Virginia General Assembly, where
they put forward a bipartisan set of reforms dubbed
“Truth-in-Sentencing.” As the legislature pushed for
tougher sentences, it also gathered numbers to illustrate why they were needed.
The goals included:
- Increasing prison terms;
- Abolishment of parole;
- Ensure inmates serve 85 percent of their
sentences by making it more difficult to earn
“good time” credit.
8
9

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/187677.pdf
http://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1993/07/21/va-candidates-compete-for-tough-on-crime-role/
e1a3fd2a-ab07-4b1f-9b77-2f6f0b39c2aa/
10
Ibid.
11
http://www.nytimes.com/1993/11/03/us/the-1993-elections-virginia-conservative-republican-wins-easily.html

The General Assembly also created a new
body, the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission,
to develop and maintain sentencing guidelines. Those
guidelines were rewritten to establish harsher penalties for repeat offenses and put a special focus on
punishing people convicted of violent crimes.
Petitions for release under the new guidelines
are reviewed and voted on by the Parole Board, which
continues to review cases stemming from convictions
prior to 1995 and releases those decisions publically
each month. Those prisoners are colloquially referred
to as “old-law inmates,” and make up the bulk of parole review requests.
Removing parole for a series of crimes came
with a notable exception: geriatric release. The Virginia Sentencing Commission decided that because prisoners who are too old or ill pose little risk to society,
and their costs are higher, prisoners meeting certain
requirements would be eligible for release.12 Geriatric release is an option for prisoners over age 60 not
convicted of class 1 felonies who had served at least
10 years of their sentence, or at least 65 years old and
have served at least five years of their sentence.
What makes Virginia notable in comparison to
other states is that there is no provision that a prisoner must be sick or terminally ill before requesting
geriatric release. Currently, 36 states require a prisoner be in some way afflicted by a long-term illness in
order to be considered for geriatric release, while 17
states also include a mental health provision. Virginia
in a smaller group of 14 states where age remains the
only factor that makes a prisoner eligible for consideration.13

Newly Convicted Prisoners Age 50+
There has been a rise in new convictions of
persons older than 50 during the past five years. In
2010, the number of new commitments in Virginia
over age 50 was 482. That number rose to 691 in
2014. While some of this increase can be explained by
a national trend toward older persons being convicted of drug-related offenses, the Virginia Department
of Corrections annual data does not break down the
offense for various age levels. 14 The subject of aging
in prison would benefit from more research on recent
sentencing rates, why they are increasing and what
should be done to reduce incarceration outcomes.

Defining ‘Geriatric’
Along with the varying conditions that must be
met for geriatric release in each state, defining which
prisoners are “geriatric” is far from standard across
jurisdictions. While the National Commission on
Correctional Health Care defines geriatric as 55, states
use the term to apply to prisoners as old as 70 and as
young as 50.15
In Virginia, even while geriatric release consideration begins at 60 (alongside the other required
eligibility requirements) the Department of Corrections has stated that it considers prisoners geriatric
at age 50 because of the accompanying health considerations that come along with incarceration.16 That
disconnect between the Department of Corrections’
own definition and the Parole Board’s mandate is key
to understanding the inherent dysfunction and waste
under the current system. While the department
charged with public safety and care for prisoners understands the nature of a prisoner’s declining health

The Virginia Department of Corrections has stated
14
Luallen, J., & Kling, R. (2014). A Method for Analyzing
that it considers prisoners geriatric at age 50.
Changing Prison Populations Explaining the Growth of the Elder12

http://www.roanoke.com/news/virginia/inmate-claimswrongdoing-in-failed-bid-for-release/article_48e2db69-b97d54b9-882c-cf481ecb6621.html
13
Maschi, T., Kalmanofsky, A., Westcott,K.,& Pappacena,L.
(2015). An Analysis of United States Compassionate and Geriatric
Release Laws: Towards a Rights-Based Response for Diverse
Elders and Their Families and Communities. New York,
NY: Be the Evidence Press, Fordham University.

5 aging in prison in virginia

ly in Prison. Evaluation review,38(6), 459-486.
15
Tina Chiu, It’s About Time: Aging Prisoners, Increasing
Costs, and Geriatric Release. New York: Vera Institute of Justice,
2010.
16
Department of Corrections (2008). “A Balanced Approach: 2008 Appropriations Act Chapter 879 Item 387—B “Assisted Living Facilities for Geriatric Inmates.” http://sfc.virginia.
gov/pdf/Public%20Safety/September%2024%20mtg/Final%20
Geriatric%20Report%20for%20Item%20387-B%20incl.%20Ex.pdf

and threat to the public, the Parole Board clearly does
not.

Parole Under the Current System:
The Overlooked Issues Behind Aging
In 2013, there were approximately 3,500 prisoners eligible for parole under the post-1995 laws.17
When a prisoner first becomes eligible, based on their
entry date and other factors such as whether they
have been previously incarcerated, they are then interviewed by prison officials one quarter before their
eligibility date. Prisoners who are eligible and choose
to apply for geriatric release forfeit their consideration for regular parole for that year.

Prisoners who choose to apply for geriatric release
forfeit their consideration for regular parole.
Parole reform advocacy organization Virginia
Cure estimates that from the population of prisoners eligible for parole, approximately 70 percent are
non-white prisoners. Only a handful of those eligible
for parole are ever released by decision of the Parole Board, with only 116 out of 3,156 applications
granted in 2012. That release rate amounts to 3.7
percent of those who apply, which was up from an
even lower 3.5 percent in 2011.18 More recent data
from the Parole Board’s monthly reports shows that
trend continuing, as the board continues to only allow
a small percentage of prisoners into the parole system
out of the thousands of cases they are reviewing each
year.19 In 2014, out of 2,990 applications for regular
parole only 102 were approved, or 3.4 percent of the
total requests. For both regular and geriatric release
requests, the most often cited reason for denial is
simply that given the nature of the crime committed,
a prisoner has not served enough of their sentence.
17

https://capitalnews.vcu.edu/2013/05/15/for-virginia-inmates-little-hope-of-parole/
18
Parole Reports and Decision data are prepared for Virginia CURE by Dr. Bob Bohall, PhD.
19
http://vpb.virginia.gov/parole-decisions/

6 aging in prison in virginia

Taking a closer look at the numbers, it is clear
that aging prisoners make up the bulk of the requests
presented to the board. Even an 18-year-old convicted in 1994 would be approaching 40 now, which
makes the majority of would-be parolees between
the ages of 50 and 70. An analysis using the most recent set of complete Parole Board decision data, from
2014, shows that geriatric release has about the same
success rate as regular parole. Of the 1,700 prisoners who were older than 60 in 2014, 217 applied for
geriatric release in 2014, with only seven successfully
granted. So far in 2015, only five such releases have
taken place.
Although it was difficult to crunch the numbers because the board refuses to release monthly
reports in their original Excel format -- perhaps to
avoid such analysis from being performed -- the following are the most pertinent visualizations of what
the thousands of cases before the board actually look
like. The Department of Safety, which oversees the
Parole Board, continues to not acknowledge a request
made for the decisions to be released in a format that
allows for meaningful analysis. The following charts
were pulled together from nearly 1,000 pages of converted PDFs.

2014 Regular Parole Data
Eligible 3,089
Applications 2,990
Granted 102 (3.4 percent)

2014 Geriatric Release data
Eligible 969
Applications 217
Granted 7 (3.2 percent)

Virginia prisoners who were denied geriatric release in 2014: age

Virginia prisoners who were denied geriatric release in 2014: race

7 aging in prison in virginia

Virginia prisoners who were denied parole in 2014: age

Virginia prisoners who were denied parole in 2014: race

8 aging in prison in virginia


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