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Aging inmates clogging nations prisons
Aging Prisoners GAG 5676053
Prisoners in wheelchairs inside the Franck C. Scott, Jr. State Prison in Hardwick, Ga. Wed., May 23, 2007. Rising prison health care costs was helping fuel a 10 percent jump in state prison spending between fiscal year 2005 and 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. - photo by Associated Press
    HARDWICK, Ga. — It’s about noon in middle Georgia and the sun is beating down on the yard at Men’s State Prison.
    Huddled under a metal canopy that provides a bit of relief are inmates slumped in wheelchairs. Some lean on walkers or canes. Razor wire lining the fences seem almost a joke in this prison where many of the men can barely manage to shuffle.
    It’s becoming an increasingly common sight: geriatric inmates spending their waning days behind bars. The soaring number of aging inmates is now outpacing the prison growth as a whole.
    Tough sentencing laws passed in the crime-busting 1980s and 1990s are largely to blame. There’s also some evidence that older people are now committing more serious crimes. It’s all fueling an explosion in inmate health costs for cash-strapped states.
    ‘‘It keeps going up and up,’’ said Alan Adams, director of Health Services for the Georgia Department of Corrections. ‘‘We’ve got some old guys who are too sick to get out of bed. And some of them, they’re going to die inside. The courts say we have to provide care and we do. But that costs money.’’
    Justice Department statistics show that the number of sentenced inmates in federal and state prisons age 55 and older has shot up 33 percent between 2000 and 2005, the most recent year for which the data was available. That’s a far faster pace than the 9 percent growth overall.
    The trend is particularly pronounced in the South, which is home to some of the nation’s toughest sentencing laws. In 16 Southern states, the growth rate has escalated by an average of 145 percent since 1997, according to the Southern Legislative Conference.
    Rising prison health care costs — and particularly the price tag of caring for elderly inmates — was helping fuel a 10 percent jump in state prison spending between fiscal year 2005 and 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And that spending is projected to continue growing, the group said.
    The graying of the nation’s prisons mirrors the population as whole. But many inmates arrive in prison after years of unhealthy living, such as drug use and risky sex. The stress of life behind bars can often make them even sicker.
    And once they enter prison walls, they aren’t eligible for Medicaid or Medicare, where the costs are shared between the state and federal government. The state must shoulder the burden of inmate health care on its own.
    Estimates place the annual cost of housing an inmate at between $18,000 to $31,000 a year. There is no firm number on how much housing an elderly inmate costs, but there is widespread agreement that it’s significantly more expensive than housing a younger one.
    In addition to medical costs there are other less obvious expenses. For instance, elderly inmates can’t climb to the top bunk so they sometimes need to be housed in separate units that require more space.
    The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that inmates have a constitutional right to health care. But what that means can sometimes depend on where an inmate is locked up.
    In Alabama, the Southern Center for Human Rights in 2005 filed a federal class action lawsuit to force the Hamilton Aged and Infirm Correctional Facility to improve conditions. Prisoners with serious medical conditions sometimes had to wait several months or more for treatment at the overcrowded facility housing frail inmates with dementia and Alzheimer’s, the lawsuit said.
    California has been buckling under the strain of skyrocketing inmate health care needs. A federal judge in 2006 appointed a receiver to oversee the state’s prison system after finding that an average of one inmate a week was dying of neglect or malpractice. A new report released by the receiver found that as many as 66 inmates died because of poor medical care last year.
    Still, even as some prisons begin to resemble nursing homes, state lawmakers have so far been reluctant to tinker with the tough laws that are keeping more people in prison for longer sentences. Fueled by violent crime waves in the 1980s and 1990s state lawmakers rushed to pass two- and three-strikes laws and to abolish parole.
    Ronald Aday, professor of aging studies at Middle Tennessee State University who has authored a book on aging prisoners, said they are now seeing the results.
    ‘‘This number is going to keep going up and up until they address the issues that are putting these people there in the first place,’’ Aday said.
    A report from the Southern Legislative Conference also found that 45 percent of the elderly inmates in Southern prisons are first-time offenders. There’s no elderly crime wave, but those older people who are committing crimes are often committing serious crimes that will keep them behind bars for some time, the study said.
    Critics say that many states have been selective in their use of compassionate leave and medical reprieve policies designed to let the sickest of the sick out before they die.
    ‘‘I’ve seen some cases where they let someone out just hours before they die, when they are comatose,’’ Scott Chavez, vice president of the Chicago-based National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
    ‘‘What does that really accomplish except, perhaps, save the state the burial costs?’’
    Experts say elderly inmates are the least likely to re-offend. But, in some cases, prison officials say, they can’t release inmates because there would be no one to care for them.
    At Men’s State Prison in central Georgia, Manson Griffin, 66, and Joe Williams, 62, said the older inmates stick together.
    They rattle off a list of ailments common to men their age: arthritis, high blood pressure, a bad back. Williams wears a neck brace and walks with a cane. Both are taking a laundry list of prescription medications.
    Still, Griffin said he’s in fairly good condition compared to some of the even older old-timers at Men’s, where the average age is 52 and the oldest prisoner is 86.
    ‘‘It’s heart-rending to see some of the older people in the condition they’re in,’’ Griffin said. ‘‘You have to wonder why they haven’t had a little leniency on them to let them go home? What can an 80-year-old man in a wheelchair do? Run?’’
    Vicki Steele, 58, is serving a life sentence at Metro State Prison in Atlanta for murdering her best friend’s husband. She suffers from lupus. The state has also paid for cataract surgery on both eyes and surgery on her ankle and foot.
    Steele, who has been denied parole once already, said she wonders on bad days if she will die in her concrete cell.
    ‘‘I hope I’m still alive,’’ Steele said. ‘‘I have hopes and dreams and goals set. I want to go home and help my family. I want to go home and make a difference.’’

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