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Aging prisoners bring healthcare cost headache

Older inmates have the most expensive healthcare, and their population is soaring.

Healthcare for prisoners has long taken a bite out of state budgets, but a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts says prisons have cut back on those costs. They’ve outsourced some health services, used tele-medicine, and simply incarcerated fewer people. But the aging of the inmate population threatens to drive those costs right back up.

According to Pew's Maria Schiff, during the same period -- 1999 to 2012 --  the number of prison inmates 55 and older jumped 204 percent, while the number of inmates younger than 55 increased only nine percent.

Schiff says stiff sentences delivered in the 1980’s and an uptick in older felons drive this trend of what’s often called the graying of America’s prisons. Prisons are forced to make accommodations.

“Ramps going into a dining room, elimination of bunk beds, officer training to address things like hearing and vision loss, dementia,” she says.

And taxpayers are picking up the tab.

In 2009, Michigan spent $11 thousand on prisoners in their mid-to late 50’s, four times what the state spent on inmates in their 20’s. University of California San Francisco Professor Brie Williams says efforts to parole older, sicker prisoners are unpopular.

“Many times people say you’ve done the crime, serve the time,” she says.

But given the cost of that time, Williams says many states are now reconsidering and trying to make it easier for these inmates to be released.

 

 

Healthcare for prisoners has long taken a bite out of state budgets.  A new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts says prisons have cut back on those costs.  They’ve outsourced some health services, used tele-medicine and simply incarcerated fewer people. But the aging of the inmate population threatens to drive those costs right back up.

DG: Here’s a stat to chew on; since 1999 the number of prison inmates 55 and older has jumped 204%.

Schiff: While during that same period, the number of inmates younger than 55 increased only nine percent.

DG: Pew’s Maria Schiff says stiff sentences delivered in the 80’s and an uptick in older felons drive this trend.

She says prisons are forced to make accommodations.

Schiff: ramps going into a dining room, elimination of bunk beds, officer training to address things like hearing and vision loss.

DG: And taxpayers are picking up the tab.

In 2009 Michigan…spent $11 thousand dollar for prisoners in their mid-to late 50’s…four times what the state spent on inmates in their 20s.

University of California San Francisco Professor Brie Williams says efforts to parole older, sicker prisoners are unpopular.

Williams: Many times people say you’ve done the crime, serve the time.

DG: But given the cost of that time, Williams says many states are now reconsidering…trying to make it easier for these inmates to be released.

I’m DG for Marketplace.

 

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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