Caring for an aging prison population presents challenges for all communities

Photo: Matthias Müller via Flickr

Photo: Matthias Müller via Flickr

With an increasingly aging prison population, how to care for inmates with chronic illnesses or other infirmities and those at the end of life has become an urgent challenge for federal and state governments, and for inmate and elder rights advocates.

An increasing number of prisoners need wheelchairs, walkers, canes, portable oxygen, and hearing aids. Many are incontinent or forgetful and need assistance to get dressed, go to the bathroom, or bathe, according to the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research. Authorities must balance appropriate care with ballooning health costs, determine who will provide care and pay for it. The situation is squeezing state correctional budgets, health services, safety-net programs and local communities.

Among the inmate population, 50 is considered “old.” Lack of appropriate health care and access to healthy living prior to incarceration, plus the heavy stresses of life behind bars, accelerates the aging process of prisoners so that they are actually physically older than average individuals.

The U.S. prison population experienced a dramatic 282 percent increase in the number of inmates 55 and older from 1995 to 2010, according to researchers at Penn State. Other sourcesestimate the growth is even larger. Data from American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2012, about 16 percent of the national prison population was age 50 and older. About 13.5 percent of federal prisoners were age 50 and older. In some locations an even higher proportions of prisoners have joined that age group: West Virginia (20 percent), New Hampshire (20 percent), Massachusetts (19 percent), Florida (18 percent), and Texas (18 percent).

The National Institute of Corrections identifies arthritis, hypertension, ulcer disease, prostate problems, and health disease as among the most common chronic diseases for older inmates. Diabetes, hepatitis C, and cancer also are common. Prisoners are also more prone to dementia than the general population because they more often have risk factors, such as hypertension, diabetes, smoking, depression, substance abuse, and head injuries from fights and other violence.

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1 thought on “Caring for an aging prison population presents challenges for all communities

  1. Larry Dreiling

    Kansas opened a 260+ bed facility for aging inmates in Oswego, Kansas, last year, at the site of a former work camp. There’s specialized services for the older inmates, and about 35 minimum security inmates work alongside the staff as caregivers.

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