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March 31, 2014

Is it time for AARP to get active in policy debates over sentencing and prison reforms?

Coa-main2The (provocative) question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy article from a local Pennsylvaia paper under the headline, "Older criminals present challenges for prisons, courts; Our population is getting grayer everywhere, including behind bars." I have seen and highlighted a number of these article in the past, and often they appear in a series of articles about state prison policies and reform. But this lengthy article is within a series of articles called "Coming of Age" addressing a range of issues facing a greying baby-boom population.

It is surely a sign of the modern mass incarceration times that a series about growing old includes a lengthy article about growing old in prison. And here are excerpts from the piece:

Older prison inmates are more likely to have chronic illnesses and mental conditions that require special treatment, and moving them through the court system can be a complicated balancing act on the scales of justice.

At the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Doylestown Township, 7.5 percent of the population — about 89 prisoners — are 65 and older.  There is no special cell block for the elderly, although some prisoners who are especially frail may be placed in protective custody, said William Plantier, Bucks County’s director of corrections....

Most of Pennsylvania’s state correctional institutions house elderly inmates. All have wheelchair-accessible cells and showers that can accommodate people with disabilities. Inmates with medical conditions that require elaborate care are sent to SCI Laurel Highlands, a minimum security prison located about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Built on the site of a former state hospital, Laurel Highlands is set up like a medical facility. Inmates receive treatments like kidney dialysis and chemotherapy, and staff members have been trained to treat chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Laurel Highlands has 15 dialysis chairs. Before the facility opened in 1966, inmates had to be transported to outside clinics for treatment. “We’re saving a ton of money by doing it in-house,” said Betsy Nightingale, assistant superintendent at Laurel Highlands. “It’s also much better for security purposes, because the inmates do not have to travel.”

Inmates in Laurel Highlands follow a normal prison schedule; there are regular times when prisoners are counted and meals follow a schedule. Frail inmates who cannot move about the facility easily have activities brought to them. “There’s bingo and a current events program,” Nightingale said.

About 120 inmates reside in Laurel Highland’s skilled care unit. That part of the prison has nurses on staff 24/7. Prisoners who have Alzheimer’s and other incapacitating illnesses take up most of the rooms. While the majority of the 1,571 beds at Laurel Highlands are filled with older inmates, younger people with chronic illnesses may also be sent there. Sometimes, they are nursed back to health and transferred to another prison.

Currently, about 5,365 of Pennsylvania’s 51,512 state-sentenced prisoners are over age 55. That’s about 10.42 percent of all prisoners. In 2000, the percentage was 4.82, about 1,775 out of 36,802 inmates.

There are 1,249 prisoners over age 65 — about 2.49 percent of the prison population. Nationwide, the number of prisoners age 55 and older has risen sharply over the past decade, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Charitable Trust, a nonpartisan research center. In 1999, there were 43,300 prisoners age 55 and up. By 2011, that number had blossomed to 121,800.

The health care costs for inmates age 55 and older with a chronic illness is, on average, two to three times that of the cost to house and care for other inmates, according to the study. In Pennsylvania, the ratio of older to younger inmates fluctuates, as prisoners complete their sentences and are released, said Susan Bensinger, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Corrections. “Not everyone who is older and goes to prison, even to Laurel Highlands, goes there to die, which is a common assumption,” she said.

But the reality is, people do die behind bars. To address this issue, the department has created an end-of-life care initiative, in which an inmate volunteer is paired with another prisoner who is terminally ill. The two inmates spend several hours a day together, so the dying prisoner spends less time alone and is more comfortable. The program, which isn’t hospice care, can be an emotional experience for the volunteers, Bensinger said. “It’s a very different thing to watch another human being die,” she said. “Some of them are probably seeing themselves in 10 years. The volunteers are very compassionate.”

In the prison system, 50 is considered elderly. That’s because inmates often enter the facilities with serious health problems. “Many inmates come to us never having received dental care or regular health care. Most of them also have drug and alcohol dependence, which ages a body much more rapidly,” Bensinger said.

March 31, 2014 at 12:40 PM | Permalink

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Comments

As an abstract matter, I think many taxpayers would support the idea that the government ought not to be imprisoning the elderly, especially given their medical needs. But how many of those elderly prisoners either (1) committed their crimes when they were already elderly, meaning that if we don't imprison them while elderly, then they get no effective punishment or incapacitation at all; or (2) committed truly horrific crimes (e.g., child rape; especially cruel murders) such that voters, if confronted with the individual case, would gladly agree to fit the bill for the incarceration.

Any report that decries the cost of incarcerating these prisoners without at least acknowledging those possibilities seems grossly intellectually dishonest.

Posted by: Analysis | Apr 1, 2014 11:21:45 AM

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