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The Unintended Consequence: Elderly Prisoners

Our earlier blog summarized Pam Belluck’s New York Times piece, “Life, With Dementia”. It has sparred greater interest, and we wanted to post another, more detailed blog on the topic.

A recent Human Rights Watch study, “Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States,” reports that one of the fastest growing segments of the prison population is aging men and women.

In the last fifteen years the incarceration rate of men and women above 55 years has quadrupled in the United States. With more elderly prisoners, officials are forced to consider how to address their unique health care and long-term care needs.

One disease has hit prisoners harder than most: Alzheimer’s disease. Limited education, substance abuse, smoking, depression, and violence make prisoners more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.

Correctional facilities throughout California have neither the financial or medical resources to deal with the ever-expanding population of elderly prisoners.

“Prisons were never designed to be geriatric facilities,” stated Jamie Fellner, author of the HRW report. ”Yet US corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars.”

In particular, California has experienced a startling increase in the number of inmates aged 55 or older. Between 1990 and 2009, the percentage of older prisoners increased by more than 500 percent.

The inevitable consequence of these stark numbers is the soaring healthcare costs. On average, the cost of housing for an elderly prisoner in California is nine times higher compared to a young prisoner.

California is now facing a crisis, not only of overcrowded prisons, but a graying population as well. Prisoners suffering from Alzheimer’s pose a unique challenge for correctional officers.

The New York Times reports that inmates with dementia often go unnoticed in the overcrowded and understaffed prisons, and at times are responsible for violent disturbances in the facilities. Plagued by paranoia, confusion, and memory loss, some elderly inmates will attack staff and fellow prisoners; a few cannot even recall their crimes.

Some states are finding innovate ways of dealing with the growing number of prisoners with dementia. One of those states is California. It allows fellow inmates called “Golden Coats” to take care of elderly inmates with dementia.

Legislators need to take into consideration the unique challenges of aging prisoners and form policies that will address elderly prisoners and their healthcare problems.

The tightening state budget, recession and greater austerity measures indicate that California does not have the economic ability to sustain the elderly prison population. Papers and reports published as far back as the early 1990s have warned about the financial impact elderly prisoners population will have on state in the 2020s.

Many policy-makers suggest an early release of prisoners suffering with dementia. These frail and elderly prisoners represent the smallest threat to the public but the largest cost to the states.

We welcome your continued thoughts on this important topic – please post your comments or your questions!