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Growing burden for aging population
By Sarah Etter, News Reporter
Published: 07/09/2007

Old hands Corrections is facing an influx of elderly offenders in an age where overcrowding prisons is already a concern. In addition, health care budgets are rising exponentially as a result of the medical needs of this particular population.

According to Dr. Ronald Aday, author of Aging Prisoners, the future doesn’t look much better for these offenders or the facilities that house as their population rises. “Based on 2005 statistics from the ACA and my research with a number of states, it’s become clear that this population hasn’t really even started growing the way it will in the next 10 or 20 years, especially when it comes to the baby boomer population,” Aday says. “We will see a tremendous increase. Right now, most DOCs classify 10 percent of their population as geriatric. We can expect to see that rise.”

Aday, who specializes in aging studies and sociology at Middle Tennessee State University, says many factors are contributing to the rising numbers.

“If you look at California, they have one out of six inmates serving life sentences. By 2020, sixteen percent of their inmates will be classified as geriatric,” explains Aday. “It’s just staggering.”

Medical costs for a typical inmate might run an agency around $33 per day, while costs for an aging inmate could run upwards of $100. Most DOCs report spending more than 10 percent of the annual budget on elderly care. According to Massachusetts DOC Health Services Director, Dr. Terre Marshall, these costs stem from the types of chronic health problems many aging offenders face.

“Cardiovascular disease, cancer, long term impact of diabetes, high cholesterol, and sedentary lifestyle are all at the top of the list. Cancer and seizure disorders are also a huge issue,” adds Marshall. Marshall says the challenge in helping the elderly population is escalated by a shortage of medical employees. Meanwhile, corrections in general has been impacted by what some consider to be the greatest nursing shortage in history.

“An area that we overlook is the mental health concerns,” Aday says. “A recent study found that 40 percent of state prisoners and 52 two percent of jail prisoners have at least one mental health problem. Many also suffer from depression. That’s another place health care costs increase. It’s not just physical health, but also the drugs for mental problems. They are very expensive.”

To address many of these issues, the MADOC created 13-bed unit specifically for offenders who require assisted living care. Some states also are looking at pardons, parole and medical furloughs for aging offenders as the population continues to grow.

“I would say that these pardons and paroles would increase if there are not other options for release like medical furlough. If those aspects are not utilized, I could see that we would have an increase of assistance on an individual level legally,” says Marshall says. Releasing elderly prisoners is not as simple as it seems.

“You have to have a place for people to go. Some of these offenders have outlived their family. Some nursing homes are apprehensive about accepting these offenders. That’s certainly a concern. If you don’t have family, what is your next option for housing and income? Many of these people have been incarcerated most of their adult lives and cannot fend for themselves,” Aday says.

One solution involves releasing aging inmates to existing family or to a support system in the community. Aday offers another innovative idea.

“We have courts for juvenile offenders. Why not have geriatric court systems? We take it into account if one commits a crime in their youth, but we don’t review sentences for elderly. That is one aspect worth pursuing.”

He adds that research still lacks about this population. Most studies have focused on aspects of specific aging inmates, like sex offenders. Instead, Aday would like to see some statewide or national figures.

“We need an overall picture of this population,” Aday adds. “We need to know what they are suffering from and what their needs are so we can begin figuring out the best way to deal with this issue. It’s not going to go away.”

Related Resources:
More about the book Aging Prisoners


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