How many people will die serving life? Louisiana's aging prison population

Ashley White
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Dwayne Hill has spent nearly half his life incarcerated in Louisiana.

The 63-year-old's health has been declining in recent years, Medria Buford, the oldest of Hill's eight children said.

"I was Googling something and I came across an inmate photo. He just looks so worn down, not like the face he puts on when we come to visit," she said. "That picture gives me more of an insight into his everyday appearance. When I talk to him, that's probably how he feels."

Hill, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a murder he said he didn't commit, is one of nearly 2,400 incarcerated people in Louisiana serving life in prison and is over the age of 50, according to a study from the Sentencing Project, a non-profit that researches and advocates for prison reform.

Under current trends, as many as one-third of people in U.S. prisons will be at least 50 years old by 2030, which could come at a high cost to state prison systems, nearly half of which lack an established care plan for aging incarcerated people, as they try to accommodate an older population, according to the Sentencing Project.

Medria Buford, left, with her father, Dwayne Hill, who is serving life in prison in Louisiana.

The Daily Advertiser reached out to the Louisiana Department of Corrections for information about the cost of caring for older incarcerated people and programs specifically for them but did not receive a comment by the time of publication.

How does Louisiana's aging population compare to other states'?

Half of the national population of people serving life without the possibility of parole are in California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to the Sentencing Project's research that examined 20 states. The non-profit did not include people serving life with the possibility of parole or those serving effectively life sentences of 50 years or longer.

Of the 20 states examined, those with the largest populations of people serving life without the possibility of parole and the percentage of those who are 50 years or older:

  • Louisiana: 4,177 - 57% over 50
  • California: 4,634 - 39% over 50
  • Florida: 9,802 - 39% over 50
  • Michigan: 4,8237 - 58% over 50
  • Pennsylvania: 5,486 - 58% over 50

Of the 20 states examined, those with the smallest populations of people serving life without the possibility of parole and the percentage of those who are 50 years or older:

  • Vermont: 14 - 64% over 50
  • Rhode Island: 25 - 60% over 50
  • North Dakota: 34 - 44% over 50
  • Wyoming: 35 - 29% over 50

The Sentencing Project found in its research that 60% of incarcerated people who are 50 or older have served at least 20 years. That percentage is higher in Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and Pennsylvania where 66-85% of the older population has served at least 20 years. In Louisiana, it's 71%.

Most of the aging people serving life without the possibility of parole were convicted of a violent crime with homicide being the leading charge, the report found.

While the Louisiana Department of Corrections does not appear to delineate the cost of incarcerating older people, a 2012 estimate from the American Civil Liberties Union estimated the U.S. spends more than $16 billion annually on incarceration for individuals aged 50 and older. And a 2017 study from the Pew Research Center found federal prison facilities with the greatest share of older people spend five times more per person on medical care.

'He could be doing so much better work outside of those walls.'

Before he was incarcerated, Hill worked as a mortician at a family-owned funeral home in Rayville, Louisiana. His family owned other homes in Tallulah and Monroe. He loves cars, motorcycles, music and women, Buford said about her father.

In the 33 years he's been incarcerated, Hill has been an inmate minister and obtained a bachelor's degree from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He's been a peer mentor, he's a Toastmaster and he has his horticulture certification.

Hill appealed his conviction. He's applied for clemency twice and is in the process of applying a third time. Buford said his family also is hopeful new information in his case can help exonerate him and bring him home.

More:He got a life sentence for murder. Now his family wants to help others in the justice system

Despite that Buford said her father, who's often telling her of new ailments he's suffering, has grown as a person while in prison.

Dwayne Hill, who is incarcerated in Louisiana, preaches to other incarcerated people in this undated photo.

"If you're just looking at rehabilitation, if you're looking at what the system is supposed to do, it's supposed to take people who have done wrong things and make them atone and help them hopefully change their perspective and be better people," she said, "then that's what it's done for my dad."

"He could be doing so much better work outside of those walls."

But while her father remains at Louisiana State Penitentiary, he continues to deteriorate, Buford said. He's losing weight and becoming frailer.

Are there changes planned for releasing inmates over 50?

There are effectively only two ways older incarcerated people serving life without the possibility of parole who pose a minimal risk to public safety are released - "compassionate release" for the very old and extremely sick and executive clemency.

Studies have shown that people released after decades of being imprisoned have low recidivism rates and recidivism is particularly uncommon among older releases, according to the Sentencing Project.

Some states are adopting or have adopted compassionate release laws. A 2022 Louisiana House Bill sponsored by Rep. Delisha Boyd (D-Algiers) would have created a parole program for someone who was older than 70 and served more than 50% of their sentence but excluded those convicted of first-or second-degree murder.

The bill failed to make it out of committee.

Audit:How do Louisiana State Police internal investigations compare to other southern troopers?

The Sentencing Project recommended several reform changes based on its research including giving added weight to advanced age at review hearings, allowing immediate sentence review with the presumption of release for people who are older than 50 and have served 10 years of their life sentences, requiring states to disclose the cost of incarcerating older people and expanding clemency release opportunities, which the non-profit contends is used less often now than in previous decades.

Buford hopes things will change for Louisiana's aging prison population. She hopes others will use a compassionate lens and think about what they would want if their grandparent committed a crime when they were young and atoned for it.

"Why are they afraid of people's grandparents especially who have given them no indication, no reason to be afraid of them or that they will do anything?" Buford said. "Let grandparents do what grandparents do for their kids and their grandkids. Let them be there to help."

Contact Ashley White at adwhite@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @AshleyyDi