« Is nitrogen gas the best modern execution alternative to lethal injection? | Main | Detailing the Keystone State's enduring Alleyne problems »

May 25, 2014

Detailing the high costs of an aging prison population

AgingThis lengthy story in the Omaha World-Herald, headlined "Prisons: pricey nursing homes for Nebraska's aging inmates," highlights the expensive realities of an aging prison population. Here are excerpts:

At age 84, Larry Ortiz is like many senior citizens, dealing with the aches and pains of old age. He uses a cane to steady his slow, shuffling gait. He battles arthritis in his bony fingers, bronchitis and dry eyes. He takes four medications and has trouble remembering names. He has had prostate surgery, been fitted for dentures and had cataracts removed. He has two artificial knees.

But Ortiz is different. He’s spending his twilight years behind bars, serving a life sentence for beating a 29-year-old woman to death in 1970, then cutting off her hands to mask her identity before dumping her body. And the cost of his old-age maladies is being picked up by taxpayers.

Ortiz is part of an ever-rising number of aging inmates who occupy prison cells in Nebraska and other states — nationwide, they are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. In Nebraska, the graying of prisons has contributed to chronic overcrowding and has been a major factor in rapidly rising health-care costs.

Dealing with older inmates is not cheap. Nationally, they are twice as expensive to house on average as younger prisoners because of their increased medical needs — such as Ortiz’s titanium knees, which together cost upward of $90,000.

Prisons have become de facto nursing homes for more and more inmates. Unit 1 at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, where Ortiz lives, houses many senior citizen inmates. It’s designed to accommodate wheelchairs and has wider doors and handrails. The state corrections system also has 31 skilled nursing beds, like those found in a nursing home. The state is looking at building a 240-bed prison to consolidate housing for inmates who are older, as well as those with mental illnesses.

Prison administrators say that by law they must provide the “community standard of medical care” or risk federal intervention. In California, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court cited substandard medical care and overcrowding in ordering the release of thousands of inmates. “It may frustrate taxpayers,” Nebraska prison Director Mike Kenney said of the medical care, “but constitutionally, ethically and morally, we cannot cut corners with inmates.”

The ACLU and other groups recommend increased use of “medical” or “geriatric” parole for medically incapacitated inmates and “conditional releases” for inmates over age 50, if they have served a certain number of years and no longer are threats to society. “Geriatric” or “medical” parole can save states money, said Marc Levin, a corrections authority with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has studied Nebraska’s prison system. At least 36 states, including South Dakota, have such laws, Levin said. California granted medical parole to 47 inmates from 2010 to October 2012 and reduced its health care expenses more than $20 million.....

The increase in older inmates was a key driver in a request to the Nebraska Legislature

last fall for $9 million to cover additional medical expenses this year and next....Generally, criminal offenders show signs of aging earlier than the typical person, in part because of their riskier lifestyles, which can lead to higher rates of hypertension, arthritis, sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis and diabetes. About 1 in 3 inmates in Nebraska’s state prisons — about 1,600 — receives “chronic care,” which involves regular medication and follow-up checks for conditions such as hypertension and asthma.

A report by the ACLU projects that by 2030, 1 in 3 prisoners in the nation will be 55 or older. As of October of last year, nearly 18 percent of the inmates in Nebraska prisons were 50 or older. In Iowa, about 12 percent of the state’s 8,215 prison inmates are over 50. Nationally, get-tough-on-crime policies and the general aging of the U.S. population have been blamed for the explosion of silver hairs behind bars.

In Nebraska, there is an additional factor: Fewer inmates serving life sentences are being given a chance at release. Three decades ago the State Board of Pardons was more likely to commute a life sentence for murder to a specific number of years once an inmate had served 20 or 30 years. That provided a chance to gain a release on parole. But such commutations have occurred only four times in the past 23 years, so more lifers are spending the rest of their days in prison, racking up medical and prescription expenses.

The National Institute of Corrections estimates that it costs $60,000 to $70,000 a year to house an elderly inmate, compared with $27,000 to $34,000 for the average prisoner....

During the 2012-13 fiscal year, 16 inmates died in state prisons; 12 were over age 50. Releasing elderly, infirm inmates would present some problems. Win Barber, a penitentiary spokesman, said many would have to go to nursing homes — which may not want to house someone like a convicted murderer.

Gov. Dave Heineman, who sits on the State Pardons Board, said he would be cautious about releasing elderly inmates, though it’s probably something worth studying as part of the overall study of the state prison system’s spending and policies. “They’re in prison for a reason,” he said.

May 25, 2014 at 01:43 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Detailing the high costs of an aging prison population:


Like all the current articles from the various states on this issue, this one fails to make the key point. If your aging inmate population costs you three, four, eight times your "normal" population, depending on their ages and conditions, then states thinking that diverting offenders will lower their overall costs need to remember that, since the aging inmates will not be as large a proportion of those diverted (due to their sentence lengths) compared to the "normal" population, they will need to divert three, four, eight offenders for every offender entering in the 50+ age category or aging into it. These calculations are NEVER figured into the purported savings that reformers tout as coming from their proposals. It is very possible that a state will see significant decreases in overall population but significant increases in costs anyway. For policymakers promised by reformers that the measures touted will help solve their budget problems, the omission of this very real likelihood in most states at best gives false hope and at worst discredits the reform efforts when the results get totaled. And also remember that these are the costs of the aging before the bills for the foreseen increases in patients with Alzheimer's and other dementia come due. Running 10-15 inmates a year out of the prisons (many fewer in the smaller states) through geriatric release, which is much much harder than it sounds to achieve politically, will not dent that as much as will be hoped. The time to plan for this and to have these articles coming out was two decades ago when the problem first started becoming clear and state and local budgets were more flush. The options are much more difficult now, meaning that your classes will likely be spending far more time (and money on thicker case books) on the constitutional issues that will continue to play out. It also means that, when efforts cycle around again to boost prison populations, as they likely will historically, the corrections officials will use the less cut-able costs for medical and mental health as their defense politically ("you're cutting our budget? there goes the Washington Monument or Statue of Liberty tours"). Which could either mean far more money for prisons than people now estimate and even less for other government functions or even stronger pushes to find other places to put offenders that can't be counted as "incarceration." IOW, your classes will keep getting livelier. Have fun.

Posted by: mike connelly | May 25, 2014 3:27:34 PM

No violent criminal over 18 left alive in 123D, starting the cunt at 14.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 26, 2014 1:59:36 AM

You hear the story of how Grandpa abused a little girl from ages 6 to 12, and stopped only because she got too old for him, who do you think grandpa is? Loose these aging criminals, do you really think the crime meter will whir any more slowly? The rewards of crime are just too great and the risks are too low, thanks to the lawyer traitor, protecting the criminal. Once out, they will rape all the mute Alzheimer patients in the nursing home, not to mention steal everything they have. So $70,0000 is still the biggest government bargain, given the $millions in damages they will inflict.

Naturally, the vile feminist lawyer will sue the nursing home for $millions after church going grandma is repeatedly raped, for negligent admission, failure to supervise. A law should allow cross claims against the legislature or the prison that certified the prisoner safe to release.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 26, 2014 8:16:55 AM

hmm did we have a brain freeze there in your 1:59am post "starting the cunt at 14." LOL

Posted by: rodsmith | May 26, 2014 3:05:49 PM

You knew the word was "count."

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 28, 2014 12:16:30 AM

yes I did but you usually don't make those typo slips. So just wondered what or WHO your brain was thinking about as you typed it! LOL

Posted by: rodsmith | May 30, 2014 5:54:11 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB