NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Care for Aging Inmates Puts Strain on Prisons

January 31, 2012

The fastest-growing population in federal and state prisons are those aged 55 and older, a trend that is forcing cash-strapped local governments to wrestle with the growing cost of caring for the aging inmates.  Some experts are pushing states to take the controversial step of releasing certain older prisoners before their sentences are up, says the Wall Street Journal.

  • According to a study being released Friday by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, the number of state and federal prisoners age 55 or over nearly quadrupled to 124,400 between 1995 and 2010, while the prison population as a whole grew by only 42 percent.
  • Some legal experts cite the drug wars of the 1980s and 1990s, which sent away thousands of young men to decades-long prison sentences.
  • In addition, tougher sentencing laws, including the abolition of parole in many states and the advent of three-strikes-you're-out laws in others, have fueled the growth in the overall prison population.
  • At current rates, a third of all prisoners will be age 50 or older by 2030, according to a study to be released next month by the American Civil Liberties Union.

All prisoners are guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution adequate health care and the basic necessities of life.  But according to some prison-system experts, prisons aren't equipped to handle many of the most predictable woes that come with aging, like problems with seeing, hearing and moving around, and age-related illnesses.  Basic activities, like washing or climbing out of a narrow bunk bed, become difficult, if not impossible, they say.

Several states have established medical facilities on or near prison grounds to treat problems most closely associated with aging.  Still, the costs associated with care for elderly prisoners are high and growing.  States spend on average $70,000 a year to incarcerate someone age 50 or older, nearly three times what it costs to house a younger prisoner, largely because of the difference in health care costs, according to the National Institute of Corrections.

Source: Ashby Jones and Joanna Chung, "Care for Aging Inmates Puts Strain on Prisons," Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2012.

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