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Prisons: Problems and Prospects - The Old And The Young

prisoners age offenders institutions

Different problems can arise—and have begun to manifest themselves—as long-term prisoners grow older and less resilient. The trend in prisoner age distributions points to a problem with incapacitative strategies, which is that offenders tend to be retained in confinement long after their capacity for offending has dissipated. Prison cells become occupied by "old cons" who spend a great deal of time locked in because they find their younger peers disturbing and irritating. Beyond self-insulation, the prisoners' contacts with significant others in the outside world becomes tenuous or nonexistent. Over time, the aging prisoners come to be less able to negotiate life if they are ever to be released. Older prisoners develop multiple health problems, and they can eventually force the prison to set up gerontological units (or specialized institutions) for invalids and disabled senior citizens (Drummond, p. 60).

At the other end of the age spectrum, juveniles sentenced by adult courts have created a "kiddieland" problem. Institutions designed for younger offenders are at least partly equipped to provide for educational needs and to deal with lower-maturity clients, but prison crowding typically leads to "first come, come served" assignments, which has made age segregation (or age grading) less prevalent, leading to an admixture of adults and juveniles in the same settings. Despite the assumption that such admixtures can give rise to "schools of crime," misbehavior is negatively correlated with age, which means that the younger the inmate, the more troublesome he is likely to be, both for his peers and his custodians.

Young prisoners act out in a variety of ways, from noisy, carefree rambunctiousness to merciless predation. Violent juvenile gang behavior occurs in the prison, as does the bullying typical of reform schools. Young prisoners tend to have histories of negative experiences and resentments relating to authority; they react to imagined slights or indications of perceived disrespect, and lapses of deference. The more immature the delinquent, the more vociferously he may insist on being "treated like a man," and the more volubly he will resist guidance and instruction. Such behavior attenuates with age, but new generations are adjudicated by the courts as each cohort matures. The problem increases as age limits for transfer are lowered, because early onset of delinquency is related to the obduracy of violent offending. As more precocious offenders are sent to prison, the trouble they cause will become more chronic and persistent.

The juxtaposition of young and old prisoners is especially problematic. The older the inmate, the more susceptible he becomes to feeling invaded; the younger the inmate, the more prone he is to create a turbulent and disruptive environment. Such problems were fewer when age disparities among prisoners were narrower. Less congested prisons also allowed for better classification and sorting of the inmates, so that would-be victims could be separated from potential aggressors, and incompatible groupings could be avoided. Prisons in the past typically included institutions for "old timers" that offered quiescent and structured environments. They also offered educationally rich settings for youthful offenders, with experienced paternalistic staff.

Enhanced heterogeneity of prison populations has gone hand-in-hand with a decreased capacity for accommodating diverging requirements. The more complex the mix of prisoners, the less able prisons have become to sort and separate different groups of inmates.

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