George D. Smith, 79, lives in Pennsylvania’s Graterford state prison, where his arthritis-crippled hands can barely fasten the ties on his jail-issued jumpsuit and where guards have to shout at him so he can hear, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the same age as the man he shot dead in a gas-station robbery in 1953. It costs taxpayers up to three times as much as other inmates to keep seniors like Smith behind bars. As the number of geriatric jailbirds climbs, a controversy is brewing over what to do with such prisoners. Smith and the 2,850 other seniors in Pennsylvania’s prisons should be freed, some argue, because they’re too old and infirm to kill or maim again, and cost too much to keep them behind bars.
Prosecutors and victims’ families say old age can’t erase convicts’ crimes and shouldn’t earn them an early exit from jail. “Why should they be in a nursing home where their family gets to come and comfort them and say goodbye to them at their death bed? I can’t say goodbye to my loved one,” said Shawn Chambers-Galis, whose brother and another man were slain by an acquaintance in 2003. Pennsylvania legislators are considering a “compassionate release” bill that would allow judges to free infirm, elderly inmates and others crippled by chronic health conditions. Nationally in 2004, about 67,200 inmates were 55 or older – the age most states consider elderly – representing about 5 percent of prison populations, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Experts predict that one-third of the nation’s prisoners will be geriatric by 2030.