Aging Prison Populations Drive Up State Costs
By Jennifer Brown, Staff Assistant
Longer sentences and repeat offenders mean states now have aging prison populations, requiring special care and driving up costs to the taxpayers.
It costs about three times as much as the norm to incarcerate elderly inmates, according to the National Institute of Corrections. In Pennsylvania, that translates to an average annual health care cost of $11,427 per older inmate compared to $3,809 for younger prisoners.
The Pennsylvania prison population 55 years old and older has increased 62 percent in the last 10 years, prompting a recent state Senate resolution to study the situation.
"It just seems like it's one of those issues that should be looked at as a way to save money for the Commonwealth," said Gregg Warner, a spokesman for Pennsylvania state Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is currently trying to contain health care costs by offering inmate health care education and programs, said Catherine C. McVey, director of the department's Bureau of Health Care Services.
"The Food Services Department is piloting a heart healthy' food line, which is low in fat, sodium and provides adequate fiber for the inmate population," McVey said. "Inmates are also afforded an opportunity for exercise and to participate in various wellness activities."
Even with these activities, McVey said, the health care needs of elderly inmates grow with age, contributing to the increased cost of incarcerating geriatric inmates.
"States are looking at ways to make medical treatment more affordable, whether that's hiring full-time staff or entering into agreements with pharmacies in order to reap some discounts on prescription drug purchases," said Joe Weedon, manager of government affairs for the American Correctional Association.
States such as Ohio, North Carolina and Illinois also have aging prison populations, and their approaches to caring for those populations vary.
"We treat them for whatever maladies they might have at whatever facility they are at," Nic Howell, spokesman for the Illinois Corrections Department, said. "The fact of the matter is that we are mandated to care for all inmates whether they are older or not."
Howell said state budget constraints have created problems with crowding and closing prisons, bumping the growing elderly population down on their list of priorities.
In Ohio, 5 percent of the current prison population is 55 years or older, almost double what it was 10 years ago. Andrea Dean, spokeswoman for the Ohio Corrections Department, said the department is pleased with the programming they have developed for older offenders.
"We have wellness programs, nutrition programs and coping skills programs, especially for women who may be going through things such as menopause," Dean said. "It's health care maintenance that they may need more frequently, such as seeing the eye doctor or the dentist."
The North Carolina Corrections Department set up a hospice unit at the McCain Correctional Hospital in McCain, N.C., four years ago for inmates who have chronic diseases or need end-of-life care.
"Some of our guys have sentences that they won't get out; they'll die in prison," said Susan Eason, health services administrator at the McCain facility. "Families are able to have special visits with the inmate and be with them at their time of death."
Elderly prison populations are growing in most states, but in some states the growth has not been as significant.
"We've always had elderly prisoners," Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the California Corrections Department, said. "What we're seeing now is the number growing because the total inmate population number is growing."
Heimerich said California is considering early release possibilities or creating a separate facility for older inmates, but so far nothing formal has been proposed.
Chris Carden, spokesman for the New Jersey Corrections Department, said that for now, their elderly prisoners are cared for just like other prisoners.
"It's not a significant population to qualify for special programming," Carden said.