The Problem of Our Aging Prison Population

By Abbie Ruzicka


May 25, 2012
BOSTON — As the number of prisoners growing old behind bars increases at an alarming rate, correctional facilities across the country are scrambling to come up with the resources for the care of elderly prisoners. Older prisoners often require special care, which drives up the cost of incarceration.
The national population of prisoners age 65 or older has grown by 63 percent, while the general prison population has grown by just 1 percent, said Jamie Fellner, the author of the Human Rights Watch report Old Behind Bars.
This could be a reflection of the longer sentences prisoners are serving, decreased opportunity for parole, more people entering the prison system at older ages and the fact that people in general are living longer, Fellner said.
“There’s this kind of knee-jerk response — 'We don’t want to let people out of prisons.' We need to shift the conversation to how do we keep the public safe and ensure accountability but not senselessly and needlessly keep all these [prisoners], who can’t go anywhere or do anything, behind bars at great cost to the public,” she said.
Though elderly prisoners represent only 6 percent of the 24,000 people in the correctional system in Massachusetts, the cost of their care is much higher than the general prison population, criminal justice reporter Beth Schwartzapfel said.
Aging inmates often require special medical treatment, which drives up the cost of incarceration. For prisoners age 80 or older, the cost of their medical care averages around $40,000 per year, according to national estimates.
For Massachusetts inmates who need help with day-to-day care, there is currently a total of 29 beds available at two separate Massachusetts Activities of Daily Living Units in Massachusetts, Schwartzapfel said. The state will need about 900 additional beds by 2020.

> > READ: Beth Schwartzapfel's article from Boston Magazine

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