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Being Old in Prison Is an Issue Needing Attention

By Elaine Leeder

The population of elders in prison, as in the rest of society, has increased faster than that of any other age group over the past twenty years. The reason is the Baby Boomers, a generation that’s now becoming the elderly.
In North Carolina, for example, a study in 2006 found that the number of prisoners over 50 was up 61%, compared with 16% for the rest of the inmate population. This, of course, leads to increased medical costs, including mental health care because these prisoners often have alcohol and drug problems. Health care costs for aged prisoners are four times that of younger inmates. The North Carolina study found an average cost to treat the aged of $7,159 each, while younger prisoners cost $1,919. In California one in five prisoners is over age 50 and there are efforts afoot to allow “medical probation” for those who require 24 hour care. That would save the state millions of dollars because in California $2000 per inmate.
Most of the time, these prisoners are low risk because of their age and health problems. Some prisons are setting up elder care facilities inside, with care being given by other prisoners. Washington State has a minimum custody assisted living program. Colorado has a skilled nursing facility for aged and mentally ill inmates. Advocates in other states are arguing that these frail elderly should be released to secure private facilities that are more suited to their care. Ohio is the most progressive state because it offers prisoners over 50 medication education, help with memory loss, grandparenting discussions, and audiotaping of elderly prisoners reading children’s books that is then sent to family members. There are also aerobic exercise programs for the elderly.
As the population in prison continues to age, all states need to begin thinking creatively about this issue and consider early release and innovative programming to deal with the special services and attention that this population needs.

Elaine Leeder is the Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, and has recently published her latest book, My Life With Lifers: Lessons for a Teacher, Humanity Has No Bars. She has worked for over 15 years at Elmira Correctional Facility in New York and San Quentin State Prison in California. Follow her on twitter @ElaineLeeder or on Facebook at facebook.com/MyLifeWithLifers, and be sure to see her latest blog or purchase her book on mylifewithlifers.com.


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