Monday, January 30, 2012
The rising number of elderly inmates has forced many corrections systems across the nation to give serious thought to incorporating geriatric units, hospices, and medical parole. Complicating matters is the fact that state budgets are already tight, and providing medical costs for older inmates will only further tighten those budgets. Under a Supreme Court ruling, prisoners are guaranteed decent medical care. However, if the inmate lacks insurance, the state must pay the full cost.
The trend of giving long sentences without the option of parole is one of the main reasons the number of elderly inmates is increasing. In 2001, 8% of inmates (124,400 inmates) were age fifty-five or older. In 1995, the number was only 3%. Between 1995 and 2010, the oldest portion of the prison population increased at six times the rate of the overall prison population.
Prisons must now decide whether to install grab bars and handicap toilets in cells, how to best accommodate prisoners in wheelchairs, and what to do when an inmate can no longer understand instructions. Some states have begun addressing these needs. Washington state opened an assisted living facility in 2010 at one of its prison complexes. Louisiana State Penitentiary has incorporated a hospice program for over a decade.
Corrections systems that have yet to implement special accommodations for aging prisoners face the problem that their health care staff lack expertise in elder care. Many states have implemented early release programs aimed at elderly inmates who are believed to pose little threat to public safety.
See David Crary, Prison Dilemma: Surging Numbers of Older Inmates, The Associated Press, Jan. 27, 2012.