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April 17, 2011

"Older inmate population grows, puts strain on system"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective article from the Auburn Citizen (which gives the piece extra bite for true students of prison history).  Here are excerpts:

One hundred ninety-two-year-old Auburn Correctional Facility is graying, and it’s not just the weather-worn stone walls.  In New York as across the country, the inmate population is aging rapidly.  The trend mirrors what’s happening among the country’s free population and creates many of the same fiscal dilemmas due to rising health care costs....

An older inmate population is the natural result of the strict sentencing that prevailed across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers and advocates say.  Offenders who previously would have received short sentences, or “skid bids,” as they’re known behind bars, instead found themselves locked up for decades or life.

One example in New York was the Rockefeller drug laws, which from 1973 until their repeal in 2009 mandated sentences of 15 years to life for possessing more than four ounces of “narcotic drugs” such as heroin and cocaine.  As a result of such “get tough” sentencing guidelines, the state prison population grew dramatically from about 10,000 in 1973 to over 70,000 in 1992.  Many of the inmates who received life sentences as young men in the 1970s are reaching their 60s this decade.

In New York, there are 847 inmates age 65 and older.  They make up about 1.5 percent of the overall prison population, a proportion that has been rising steadily for several years, state Department of Corrections and Community Services spokesman Peter Cutler said.  As recently as 1992, it had been just 0.3 percent.

Nationally, the 55-and-older segment of the prison population grew by 77 percent from 1999 to 2007, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.  The change is important because elderly inmates like Bernard Hatch are much more costly to house, mostly because of health care.

A 2010 report by the Vera Institute for Justice cited studies showing that elderly inmates make five times as many trips to health facilities and cost three times as much to incarcerate as their younger counterparts.  Elderly inmates average three chronic conditions and 20 percent suffer from mental illness, according to the report....

The demographic change and the attendant cost spike has sent some states scrambling for ways to handle older inmates.  As of 2008, six states had a dedicated prison for the elderly, eight had hospices and 13 had dedicated elderly units, according to the Vera report....

New York is also among the 15 states with some sort of geriatric release process. Such programs are usually based on inmates’ terminal illnesses, and advocates point out that recidivism rates plummet as offenders age.  One study showed a one-year recidivism rate of 3.2 percent for released inmates age 55 and older compared to 45 percent for people between 18 and 29 years old.  The compassionate release program in New York, however, results in very few releases: just eight in 2010 out of 140 applicants, Cutler said.

“All the studies show that recidivism is virtually non-existent once a person gets over 45,” said Soffiyah Elijah, director of the Correctional Association, a non-profit prison advocacy group.  “I think it would be smart for us to take another look at how we’re spending taxpayers’ dollars to keep those individuals incarcerated.”...

People in their 70s and 80s are expensive to incarcerate, but prison officials see a tradeoff in having “elder statesmen” in the general population. “The younger inmates look up to them,” Cutler said.  “They have a calming influence in some respects.”

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April 17, 2011 at 11:53 AM | Permalink

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"Older inmate population grows, puts strain on system"

Of course a parallel piece could just as well be titled, "Older non-inmate population grows, puts strain on system."

The tax-paying population is going to wind up footing the bill one way or the other. That's just how it is.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 17, 2011 7:07:06 PM

From my own observations through visiting a relative with a loooong sentence, many inmates seem to age more rapidly and are in poorer general health than those on the outside. I know that the plural of "anecdote" is not data. It wouldn't surprise me, though, if healthcare costs begin their escalation earlier for those in prison. If so, implications for taxpayer spending/savings exist, beyond the the mere moral implications of accelerated deterioration of inmate health.

Posted by: wishful | Apr 19, 2011 10:15:05 PM

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