Between 1995 and 2010 the number of inmates aged 55 and up almost quadrupled, owing in part to the tough-on-crime sentencing laws of the 1980s and 90s, according to a 2012 ACLU report. In 2013, about 10 percent of the nation’s prison inmates—or 145,000 people —were 55 or older. By 2030, the report said, one-third of all inmates will be over 55. At the same time, it is widely accepted that prisoners age faster than the general population because they tend to arrive at prison with more health problems or develop them during incarceration.
Caring for elderly inmates can cost up to twice as much as caring for younger ones. In North Carolina, for example, it costs an estimated four times as much. During the fiscal year 2006-2007—its most recent figures—the state’s corrections department spent $33,824,060 on health care for inmates over 50, a 35% increase from just two years earlier.
Despite these runaway costs, there is no national oversight to determine how prisons handle the challenges of an aging population, says Marc Stern, a consultant in correctional health care. “If a Medicaid or Medicare auditor walked into [a large urban hospital] to do an audit’’ Stern said, “they would say, ‘O.K., where’s your geriatric unit? Where’s your dementia unit?’ It’s part of the audit process, it’s part of the intelligence phase that is part of being part of a national organization.”
Some inmates read books and lift weights to keep occupied. In the Unit for the Cognitively Impaired at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York, it’s board games and bingo.
America’s prison population is rapidly graying, forcing corrections departments to confront the rising costs and challenges of health care in institutions that weren’t designed to serve as nursing homes.