The number of Americans in prison older than 55 is growing at a faster rate than the group’s share of the population at large, and many prisons are unprepared to provide them with health care, which can cost as much as nine times more than for younger inmates, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Friday.
The complications in handling the swelling number of aging prisoners range from making allowances for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia and finding sufficient ground-floor cells for inmates in wheelchairs to ensuring that older prisoners are not exploited or robbed by younger inmates.
“Age should not be a get-out-of-jail-free card, but when prisoners are so old and infirm that they are not a threat to public safety, they should be released under supervision,” said Jamie Fellner, the author of the study. “Failing that, legislatures are going to have to pony up a lot more money to pay for proper care for them behind bars.”
The report found that the number of imprisoned men and women 65 years and older grew by more than 90 times the rate of the total prison population from 2007 to 2010. While the number of those older inmates increased by 63 percent, the number of all inmates rose by just 0.7 percent.
State or federal prisons now hold about 26,200 people 65 years and older, and about 124,000 inmates older than 55, the report said. The number of incarcerated people who are older than 55 has grown at a rate six times that of the rest of the prison population.
While most elderly inmates have been in prison for years, the number of older people just entering has also been increasing — along with the cost of their care.
In Michigan, the annual cost of health care for the average inmate was $5,800, according to the study, a figure that increased to $11,000 for prisoners aged 55 to 59. The cost spiraled to $40,000 a year for inmates 80 years and older.
“Prison officials look at the projected increase in aging prisoners in their systems and realize in the very near future they will need to operate specialized geriatric facilities,” the report said. “Some already do.”
California, which is under federal court order to reduce overcrowding in its prisons, has seen the percentage of its inmates older than 50 increase to 17 percent in 2010, from 4 percent in 1990, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“We have an awful lot of people who are probably going to die in prison,” said Nancy J. Kincaid, spokeswoman for the state’s Correctional Health Care Services. “There are people with 40-year sentences, 30-year sentences. We have to figure out how to care for these people.”
The state’s prison health care system has been in federal receivership since 2006, when a court ruled that the state was failing to provide inmates with adequate access to health care services.
Ms. Kincaid said that as the prison population had aged, so had the incidence of chronic diseases among inmates, including hypertension and diabetes. And because the state has only three hospitals for prisoners — about 120 beds — it must contract with private operators for inpatient care. The cost of a hospitalized inmate in such a facility is about $850,000 a year.
“We have guys who are comatose shackled to beds with a guard in the room,” she said.
To reduce costs, the state is building a $750 million medical center for inmates in Stockton that will have 1,772 beds, and include a pharmacy and dialysis clinic. It will be single story to ease mobility problems among what is expected to be a large number of older patients.