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A man's hand grips the wheel of a wheelchair
Photo by svyatoslavlipik on Depositphotos

The superior courts in California hand out life sentences like candy at Halloween. As a result, they’ve filled the state’s prisons with multitudes of sick and old people. If taxpayers truly understood the costs of incarcerating these forever prisoners, they could  use their votes to reform this Draconian system.

On average, California spends $106,000 to incarcerate one person for one year, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. There are just over 140,000 people currently incarcerated in the state and, in 2019, the most recent year available, residents age 60 and older comprised 8% of them. 

Research has shown that it costs significantly more money to incarcerate older people due to the additional health care costs. Meanwhile, a 2021 report from The Sentencing Project notes that one-third of California’s prison population are serving life sentences, one of the highest rates in the nation, eclipsing the national average of 15%. 

With those numbers in mind, I want to take you on a tour of Mule Creek State Prison, where I am serving 40 years to life. Welcome!

On behalf of everyone who calls this concrete monstrosity their home, I thank you for visiting. I’d like for you to see your tax dollars at work. 

First stop is the dayroom. At one end are doors leading to 11 six-person dorms, home to 66 men. Survey the scene. You may wonder why there are so many wheelchairs and walkers lined up along the walls of the bottom tier. There are 18 of them in all. Of the residents who reside in this pod, 1 in 4 cannot convey themselves without the assistance of a mobility device. 

Next, let’s walk to the dining hall. Here you’ll see a wheeled procession of disabled people and the folks who support them. Note the many residents with wizened faces and white beards who walk with canes or hobble in a stooped manner. As you stand in line waiting for your food trays, behold the hundreds of seated diners. You’ll see many of them — to my eyes about 30% — wearing bright yellow disability vests, indicating an impairment of one kind or another. Printed in bold black on the back of these vests are words like: “hearing,” “mobility” or “vision,” followed by the word “impaired.” 

This is why I’ve brought you here — to witness a troubling conundrum. It is here, in unambiguous terms, that you see the effect of our nation’s decades-long tough-on-crime policies, including the war on drugs, the three-strikes law, gun and gang sentencing enhancements, and the declining use of clemency and early parole release.

We should ask policymakers how a feeble old man in a wheelchair could possibly pose a threat to society — especially when evidence shows that recidivism rates drop dramatically with age — and why he needs to be locked up until his death. Why can’t the money it costs to incarcerate him and other elderly residents be used to address the root causes of crime?

In their 2018 book, “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences,” Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis argue that life sentences are inhumane and counterproductive. They are doled out to prisoners in the United States at a rate up to 10 times more than Canada and Europe. In California, lifers make up a third of the prison population. So much for forgiveness and redemption. 

With its excessive punishments, the California legal system has created a permanent class of offenders who will have to be supported for the rest of their lives, producing exorbitant healthcare costs. 

In 2021, progressive lawmakers in Sacramento, the state’s capital, introduced a bill that would require a statement of expense for each sentence. While the bill passed the assembly, it stalled in a Senate committee in 2022.

If a miracle happens and I’m able to walk out of the doors of this old people’s home with all my faculties intact, I’m resolved to use my last years to speak out. I’ll be asking my fellow citizens to imagine how the money used on mass incarceration in California could be spent on other efforts. I’ll be asking them to imagine all the schools, parks, daycare centers, free lunches and pay raises for teachers that could be bought with the enormous sums of money wasted each year on this debacle of dead ends.

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.

Fred Munch is a writer for The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. Munch attended the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1967 to 1970.