By David Eugene Archer Sr.
Journalism Guild Writer
The elderly population in state prisons continues to climb, causing financial burdens and other problems, reports Michael Ollove for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
State and federal prisoners 65 and older outpaced the total population by 94 to 1 from 2007 to 2010, according to Human Right’s Watch.
By 2014, Virginia’s elderly prisoners had grown in number to 7,202, or 20 percent of all inmates.
The consequence of this for state prisons is it costs more money for health care for the aged – between four and eight times that of younger prisoners, according to the report.
In 2013 nearly half the $58 million Virginia spent on off-site prisoner health care was for older prisoners, according to Trey Fuller, the state’s prisons’ acting health services director.
“Over time we’ll need more and more money… because they will need more drugs, more specialist visits, more nursing hours, more everything,” Fuller said.
Corrections officials point to two factors that cause this increase in older prisoners. The first is increase in the rate older adults are entering prison. The second factor is changes enacted in the get-tough-on criminals 1990s resulting in longer prison sentences, the March 17 story reported.
“It was the push for mandatory sentences and three strikes you’re out,” said Linda Redford, director of aging and geriatrics programs at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
People in prison generally are less healthy than the general population. They have abused drugs and alcohol or neglected their health for many years, the story noted. They have higher rates of cardiac disease, high blood pressure, hepatitis C, diabetes and other chronic diseases than the general population.
“Prisons weren’t designed for patients who are getting older. They were … for people 18 to 55,” said Owen Murray, chief physician for Correctional Managed Care, University of Texas Medical Branch. One in five Texas prisoners is older than 50.
States have had to install ramps and shower handles and make other physical modifications. Many prisons have had to create assisted-living centers with full-time nursing staffs. At least 75 prisons provide hospice services for dying prisoners, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
When aging prisoners reach the end of their sentences, corrections officials often have a hard time placing them. “Private nursing homes don’t want to take elderly offenders…,” said Virginia’s Fuller.
Studies have found that older ex-offenders are less likely than younger ones to commit additional crimes after their release, Ollove noted. But politicians and the public don’t seem willing to release former murderers and sex offenders, though they are decades removed from their crimes and physically incapable of repeating them, said Liz Gaynes, president of the Osborne Association.
“It comes down to they did a bad thing, and they should be punished,” Gaynes said.
“States will be forced to pay more and more for that attitude,” Gaynes added.
“Either you figure out ways to get them out of the prison system and on to Medicare, or … you need to fund those facilities and care services that are necessary,” said Texas’ Murray.
So far, most states have opted for the second approach, reported Ollove.
By David Eugene Archer Sr.