Elderly prison population booming

CNN’s Stephanie Chen considers the issues that surround elderly prisoners, a fast-growing group that has generally flown under the radar. According to Chen, “An analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data found that the male prison population over age 55 ballooned by 82 percent in eight years, from 48,800 inmates in 1999 to 89,900 in 2007.”

These older inmates are typically more expensive and in poorer health than their younger peers. In Georgia, Chen reports, “the state spends about $8,500 on medical costs for inmates over 65, compared with about an average of $950 for those who are younger.”

Every inmate here has a medical condition; dementia, hypertension and diabetes are the most common, the warden says. “With the elderly population, we’re beginning to run something comparable to nursing homes,” says Sharon Lewis, medical director for the Georgia Department of Corrections. “This is one of the unhealthiest populations found anywhere. They really lived life hard.”

The boom in geriatric prisoners has stressed state budgets, especially in states where money was already tight. In response, Chen writes, some states are considering softening their stance on older prisoners.

To ease budget woes in California, one bill up for debate would allow nonviolent elderly prisoners to be released into hospice care or monitored with ankle bracelets. In the past few years, Georgia officials say, the state has released more frail and dying inmates on medical reprieve than ever before. Other states, including New York and Virginia, have also allowed early release of ailing elderly inmates.

For tips about reporting on jails and prisons, be sure to read Naseem Sowti Miller’s tip sheet, Covering health care in jails, and her presentation on the topic from the 2008 Urban Health Journalism Workshop. For tips and tools on reporting on America’s graying population, check out reports from last month’s Aging in the 21st Century workshop.

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