Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Rising age of prison populations leading to higher health care costs for many states

The rising age of inmates at state and federal prisons—located disproportionately in rural areas—is costing states increasing amounts of money in health care, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. A report by Human Rights Watch, "Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States," found that between 2007 and 2010 "the number of sentenced state and federal prisoners age 65 or older increased by 63 percent, while the overall population of sentenced prisoners grew only 0.7 percent in the same period."

Most states are seeing a rising age in prisoners, Ollove writes. For example, in 1990 in Virginia 822 state prisoners were 50 and older (the age corrections officials usually consider old age for prisoners), or about 4.5 percent of all inmates. In 2014, 7,202, or 20 percent of all inmates were 50 or older. That's leading to increased health care costs, with nearly half of the $58 million Virginia spent on off-site prisoner health care in 2013 going to older prisoners, according to Trey Fuller, acting health services director in the state Department of Corrections. (Human Rights Watch graphic)
"Many states have taken steps to reduce their prison populations by releasing nonviolent inmates or by diverting some offenders to community programs before sending them to prison," Ollove writes. "But corrections officials say those reforms alone will do little to decrease the population of older prisoners who are serving mandatory sentences or have committed violent crimes. Several states have adopted programs such as early release for geriatric patients or 'compassionate release' for the dying. But advocates for prisoners say the programs are often so cumbersome and restrictive that few older prisoners are able to take advantage of them."

Correction officials say the rising age of inmates can be credited to an increase in the number of older people being sentenced to prison and a move in the 1990s to get tougher on prisoners that resulted in longer sentences, Ollove writes. Linda Redford, who studies health issues related to aging prisoners and is the director of aging and geriatrics programs at the University of Kansas Medical Center, told Ollove, “It was the push for mandatory sentences and three strikes you’re out. So we’re seeing people who came to prison in their 30s and 40s and 50s in their 50s and 60s and 70s today.”

Another problem is that many prisons were not designed to accommodate older inmates, Ollove writes. "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. In addition, at least 75 U.S. prisons provide hospice services for dying prisoners, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform." Still, services for the elderly are often stretched thin at many prisons, which have to pick and choose which inmates receive assisted living or special care. (Read more)

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