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The POPS Program: Providing A Voice For Older Inmates
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor
Published: 02/19/2001

As one of the fastest-growing prison populations, older prisoners are gaining more attention not only for their increasing numbers, but also the medical needs that accompany age. For facilities across the nation, it is becoming increasingly important to make sure that they are prepared to deal with the specialized needs of elderly or infirmed inmates. One program not only focuses on these issues surrounding older inmates, but also aids them in gaining release if possible.

'The prison population today is far more diverse than it has been in history,' says Jonathan Turley, founder and Executive Director of the Project for Older Prisoners (POPS). 'On one end, you have the babies of baby boomers mainly in prison for drug offenses, on the other end geriatrics, and in the middle a variety of prisoners including those with HIV and other special needs. Older prisoners present the greatest challenge. Their numbers are growing at a faster rate.'

Turley created POPS over a decade ago at Tulane Law School to address the problems of this growing population and to aid elderly and infirm inmates who seek parole, pardon or commutation of sentence. To date, the program has helped close to 300 inmates gain release without a single act of recidivism. 

'Academics in the field long agree that the most reliable predictor for recidivism is age,' adds Turley, who is currently the J.B. and Maurice Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. 'The potential for recidivism of adult males drops dramatically between the ages of 30 to 35 and by 60, 70, and 80 they often have recidivism rates lower than the citizen population at large.'

The POPS program works closely with states and parole boards, not just on individual cases, but as advisors on how to make new policies and procedures to improve conditions for elderly and infirm inmates and reduce the cost of caring for this population. According to Turley, the cost of maintaining elderly inmates is two to three times that of a younger inmate, with the average annual maintenance cost for elder inmates reaching nearly $70,000 per year.

In working with states, the program recommends that they enact a comprehensive program that allows for options dealing with low-, medium- and high-risk elderly inmates. For low-risk elder inmates who have taken from two to three tests gauging probability of recidivism and scored low on the risk scale, release is recommended. Medium-risk offenders are sometimes recommended for electronically monitoring through bracelets or are even placed in a public nursing home if they are closer to low-risk status. Turley notes that these options can reduce a state's cost by 4/5 and, at the same time, improve conditions for the prisoner.

With high-risk elderly or infirm inmates, the recommendation is that they be placed in geriatric units where, among other things, medical issues can be addressed for this population.

'One of the contributors of high cost is that gerontological disease and illness can not be prevented and is allowed to get chronic in most prisons,' says Turley. 'This is the result of a lack of expertise in these conditions as well as the lack of resources. One of the most difficult problems is 'masking,' where the effects of aging mask an illness. Many of the symptoms of an illness can be identical to the aging process and it takes someone with training to deal with this problem.'

By concentrating resources in the units, better care means better prevention from disease and the reduction of inmate injuries. In addition to increasing care, Turley is a staunch advocate for specialized units due to the fact that they can also decrease cost.

'Eventually, all states will have to develop programs [focused on elderly and infirm inmates],' he says. 'Those who haven't, are spending money they could shift to other programs or to improving their facility. They are burning money that is obviously needed in a system that has a burgeoning population and limited resources.'

Helping Older Inmates Gain Release

Along with advising states on needed programming, POPS also provides inmates with representation from Tulane law students before the Louisiana Parole and Pardon Boards. In fact, in Louisiana, these student volunteers are the only 'counsel' afforded to inmates to aid them in their efforts to gain release. When taking inmates into consideration as clients, victims are interviewed regarding their feelings about release. The program also uses the following criteria to select clients:

     *Must be over age of 50
     *Prison sentence of significant length with significant

       portion served
     *Trusty status or insignificant infraction record while

       in prison
     *Medical difficulties of terminal or significantly


'What drew me to the program was the fact that Tulane Law School cared enough about the elderly and not making them die in the circumstances [of prison],' says Margaret Ann Pierre, the Supervising Attorney for Tulane's POPS program. 

Pierre's office is comprised of 50 'student attorneys' and currently maintains a caseload of 309 inmates. Each student is assigned to an inmate and travels to one of the five state facilities the program works with to conduct interviews. As part of their work, students gather all the facts of the inmate's case, including life history, criminal record, health, probability of recidivism. They also investigate the community resources available to these inmates if they gain release, including placement with family or in a nursing home. 

According to Turley, those students who participated in POPS from Tulane, as well as those at law schools in Michigan, Washington D.C and North Carolina, are better lawyers today, a point Pierre concurs with.

'They get litigation experience and realize that this is not a simple hearing, but very, very challenging,' she says. 'I think it's an awakening for some to realize what the criminal justice system is really like.'

There has been a sense of disappointment over the past few years, Pierre admits, because Louisiana's governor has not signed any of the pardon recommendations for elderly prisoners, lowering morale among prisoners.

'We usually reiterate a saying that's familiar with the lottery - 'you have to be in it to win it,'' says Pierre. 'Our students keep their spirits up through letters and try to be there for them. Some look into whether the inmate applies for Social Security benefits upon release or look into placement in nursing homes. While we haven't had as much success lately as we would like, we are getting more and more states asking us for information and that will help elderly and infirmed inmates everywhere.'


Margaret Ann Pierre, Supervising Attorney, Tulane University POPS, (504) 865-5849

Jonathan Turley, Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law, George Washington University, (202) 994-7001


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