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August 24, 2014

Detailing the high cost of an aging prison population in the Palmetto State

1dNMJN.AuSt.74This lengthy local article, headlined "Graying of SC prisons will cost state’s taxpayers," reports in a South Carolina context an issue facing nearly every American jurisdiction as the costs of past tough-on-crime policies come due. Here are excerpts:

An inmate at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution for women keeps a wheelchair tucked away in the corner of her small, cinder-block cell.  She has a walker, too.  The wheelchair and walker are just two of the signs of the exploding population of aging inmates in South Carolina’s prisons.

Another sign? The dollar sign, as in the increasing cost that S.C. taxpayers will have to pay to care for those aging inmates.  In the past decade, the number of S.C. inmates age 55 and older has more than doubled, according to the S.C. Corrections Department. At the end of June, one in every 11 inmates was 55 or older.  The graying of the state’s prison system will continue, experts warn. Barring changes in the state’s parole system, they add that the aging prison population stands to become even more expensive for taxpayers to support....

“We’ve passed policies and laws that have dictated we want our prisons to become nursing homes,” said Jon Ozmint, the Columbia lawyer who was head of the state’s prison system under former Gov. Mark Sanford.  Those policies and laws come with a cost to taxpayers. It costs about twice as much nationally to house a prisoner over 50 as it does the average prisoner, according to a 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union. “Do we really want to keep them (inmates) in prison until they die?” Ozmint asked rhetorically. “It feels good.  It makes a certain segment of society feel good.  But it’s a costly proposition.”...

Today, the oldest inmate at Camille Graham Correctional Institution is 70 years old. A few of the women at the prison, located off Broad River Road, have been locked up for more than 25 years.  One inmate has been incarcerated for almost 37 years.  But, in one key way, Graham Correctional is not representative of the state’s prison population: Its inmates are women. And as the state’s prison system grays, its senior-citizen inmates overwhelmingly stand to be men.

In 2013, 10 percent of the state’s prisoners — or 2,263 inmates — were serving sentences that called on them to live out their lives in prison or be executed.  Almost all of those 2,263 inmates were men.  Less than 90 were women....

The aging prison population has been driven by the war on drugs and tough-on-crime sentences, said Ozmint, who led S.C. prisons for eight years.  “Feel-good legislation” — including truth-in-sentencing — essentially did away with parole, keeping inmates in prison until they are old, he said.  As a result, many elderly and infirm inmates are not eligible for parole.

Medical parole is an option for elderly prisoners who were convicted of a parole-eligible offense, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.  Since 2010, however, no requests for medical parole have been granted in South Carolina.  Of 13 requests, 10 were deemed eligible for a hearing, O’Boyle said.  Of those 10, seven inmates were turned down by the parole board.  Three inmates were granted conditional parole, but two completed their sentences before they were paroled. The third was sent back to prison for another offense.

Historically, winning parole has been difficult in South Carolina in any event, says Ozmint. That is because the state’s parole board has given great weight to the understandable anger of crime victims in deciding whether to grant parole, the former prisons chief says. However, the current parole board has come a long way toward making less emotional decisions, based on objective risk factors and public safety, he added....

Ozmint expects the prison system’s elderly population will continue to grow, creating the need for more geriatric facilities, which are more expensive to operate than regular prisons.  Those rising health-care costs directly will impact taxpayers, he adds.  A solution could be found in turning to the private sector to handle elderly prisoners, Ozmint said. But that assumes for-profit prisons can operate more cheaply the state’s notoriously skinflint prisons.

Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling, who took the post heading S.C. prisons in October, says telemedicine is a more cost-effective option to provide medical services. Now, inmates sometimes are taken off-site for doctor’s visits or other health-care needs. Multiple correctional officers must travel with them, which is expensive, Stirling said. If telemedicine is used, an off-site doctor could care for an inmate via a video conference. But, problematically, that would require transferring inmates’ medical records electronically, Stirling said....

For the moment, at least, a drop in the number of state prisoners has freed up resources that could be used to offset to increased health-care costs.  The number of inmates in S.C. prisons has been decreasing steadily since sentencing reform ... was passed in 2010. As of June 30, the state had 21,904 prisoners, down from 24,883 five years earlier, according to the Corrections Department.

That reform increased sentences for violent criminals but allowed some nonviolent offenders to avoid prison.  “Any time someone is not incarcerated, it’s a savings for the state,” Stirling said.  “It’s a tremendous savings for the state.”

August 24, 2014 at 01:29 PM | Permalink

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I agree with this report and hope for compassionate release for my husband who is 50 yrs old and was stabbed in the eye by inmate and his eye bleed for 2weeks without medical care this happened in 2011, now it's 2014 and surgery kept getting put off now he went blind in that eye. I with Traumatic Head Injury and my husband my only caregiver should be released, Compassionate Release is honored for federal prison but not state and my husband is in state. The act of Compassionate Release states that if spouse has Traumatic Head Injury and incarnated spouse is only caregiver then they can be granted Compassionate Release. Why isn't this passed for SC state prison when passed and honored for federal. He is no threat to no one, we don't even own guns. Let cost be lowered by letting prisoners who are no threat home to their families. Keep the ones who are murderers, child molesters, sex offenders and dangerous life threatening prisoners remain. There is a lot of SC prisoners who are not a threat to society who would go to work and generate the economy. Instead of all high cost to everyone keeping SC prisons from overcrowded .

Posted by: Lisa McDaniel | Aug 24, 2014 4:10:10 PM

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