Among other problems that are developing from our bursting prisons is the problem of the aging prison population. Exceeding the growth of prison population is the growth of the elderly population in prison. Tough sentencing laws from the 1980’s and 1990’s have succeeded. Inmates locked up then are still locked up. But barbed wire fences don’t look so necessary when the inmates cannot get out their wheel chairs.
Department of Justice statistics show nationally that the number of inmates aged 55 years and older has increased 33 % from 2000 to 2005. For the same period, the growth in the number of inmates of all ages has grown 9%. This increase is greater in the Southern states, where estimates are that the increase in elderly inmates in 16 southern states is 145% since 1997.
Inmates are not eligible for coverage under Medicare nor Medicaid, so, instead of the state sharing these medical costs with the federal government, the state alone must pay for them. National costs estimates are $18,000 to $31,000 cost per year to house an inmate. The increased cost to care for an elderly inmate is uncertain, but certainly more than younger inmates. And prison inmates typically have led less healthy lives than the population at large, so more health problems are to be expected from aging inmates.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that inmates have a Constitutional right to health care, so the federal courts have and will continue to be involved in monitoring the states’ performance in providing this health care for its prisoners.
Unfortunately, the fact that our state is “tough on crime” may not only provide overly punitive sentences to those found guilty of a crime but also may be costly to the rest of us because of the rising costs of housing and caring for our aging prisoners. I believe it’s time for our state to look at other options for sentencing and rehabilitation.
However, the best thing someone charged with a crime can do is to make sure they have the best defense possible in order to have a chance for freedom, or at least a reduced sentence from what the prosecution would attempt to achieve.