Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Aging Prison Population

Baby boomers are aging behind bars and their health problems are creating a burden for U.S. prisons. In 2008, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported there were 76,000 prisoners age 55 and over - an increase of 76 percent since 1999.

Age 55 is considered elderly in the prison population compared to 65 - 70 for the general public. This is due to an earlier onset of age-related illnesses such as diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, strokes and other ailments. The stress of living in prison, life-long poverty, poor nutrition, and drug abuse are some of the contributing factors to this problem.

A further complication is the fact that many prison facilities are poorly equipped to deal with geriatric ailments and the high cost of caring for these individuals.

While some prisons have on-site, infirmaries, hospices, and clinics to serve aging and terminally ill prisoners, balancing care and security is a complex problem. Some of the most dangerous and persistent criminals were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole thirty years ago. They have aged in place and are now among the old, frail, and chronically ill. Studies in Pennsylvania and North Caroline found that prisoners over the age of 50 were more likely to be jailed for violent offenses such as sexual crimes and therefore were poor candidates for early release related to health problems.

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates the cost of caring for frail elderly inmates is three times more than the average prisoner and the cost is entirely absorbed by the state in which they are incarcerated. Inmates released to the community are funded by both state and federal money (Medicare and Medicaid).

In 2001, Corrections Compendium, a journal of the American Corrections Institute, summarized how 46 states are dealing with the problem of aging prisoners.

  • Sixteen maintain separate facilities to house older inmates.
  • Many provide medical treatment and provide 24 hour care in skilled nursing facilities.
  • Forty-one states offer early release.

According to the National Prison Hospice Association in Boulder, Colorado, many states now offer prison hospice services. Elderly inmates die without family or friends. Corrections officials and younger inmates must then assume the role of health care provider, grief counselor, and funeral director.

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