This article was published in partnership with CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters.
In late September, a 74-year-old prisoner named Woodrow died after more than 40 years of punishment.
To the guards and prison staff, Woodrow’s death was routine. It meant nothing more than another available bed and the nuisance of having to inventory his meager possessions.
To the wheelchair- and walker-bound prisoners in Woodrow’s prison unit, his loss served as an uncomfortable reminder of their own looming, ignoble deaths in prison.
California’s prisons are packed with advanced-age prisoners. People 55 and older make up about 16% of California’s incarcerated population. During the 2000s, California added more than 11,000 people 55 and older to its prisons.
Maybe they were once menaces to society. But time and brutal prison conditions have taken such a toll on their minds and bodies that they are no longer a threat — other than those who cheat at checkers. Many of these old men are dying or will die in prison, despite extremely low recidivism rates for their age group.
On average, it costs California a little more than $106,000 per year to keep someone in prison, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. While the agency doesn’t track expenses by age group, it has reported that in other states it can cost two to three times more to incarcerate an older person.
Right now, there are few options to gain release from prison, even once you approach death. California has an elderly parole program that allows for people to meet with the California Board of Parole if they are 50 or older and have been incarcerated for at least 20 years.
But that program excludes many other people who should be considered, including those who are sentenced to death or life without parole. It also excludes anyone who is sentenced under California’s three-strikes law for a second or third serious or violent felony conviction.
Data from the parole program also calls into question how effective it has been at freeing elderly people. Between 2014 and 2020, the threshold for elderly parole in California was 60 years old and 25 consecutive years in prison. During that six-year window, the program had only a 19% release rate, according to Recidiviz, a nonprofit criminal justice data platform.
Parole programs across the U.S. generally have low release rates, regardless of age. California is no different, receiving an F-minus parole system grade from Prison Policy Initiative. The difference here is that with low elderly parole rates, I believe the California Board of Parole has chosen to practice “senicide,” the willful or neglectful killing of older people.
Everyone should care about this issue, whether you are a practical, financial-minded person or someone who thinks with your heart first. There’s no reason to needlessly punish people to death — especially when that wasn’t their sentence to begin with.
This practice of letting changed, elderly people die in prison has taken a toll on the soul of California. And it will continue to do so until something changes.
(Additional reporting by PJP)
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.