Wall Street Journal
Prison systems in the U.S. have an aging problem, one that has nothing to do with steel bars and cement walls.
The fastest-growing population in federal and state prisons are those 55 and older, a trend that is forcing cash-strapped local governments to wrestle with the growing cost of caring for the aging inmates. Some experts are pushing states to take the controversial step of releasing certain older prisoners before their sentences are up.
According to a study being released Friday by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, the number of state and federal prisoners 55 or over nearly quadrupled to 124,400 between 1995 and 2010, while the prison population as a whole grew by only 42%.
"Prisons are facing a silver tsunami," said Jamie Fellner, the author of the Human Rights Watch study. "Walk through any prison and you'll see a a surprising number of wheelchairs and walkers and portable-oxygen tanks."
At current rates, a third of all prisoners will be 50 or older by 2030, according to a study to be released next month by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's a simple calculation—during the last 30 years, more people went to prison for longer periods of time," said Martin Horn, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the former commissioner of New York City's Department of Correction. "Those people are getting older now."
All prisoners are guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution adequate health care and the basic necessities of life. But according to some prison-system experts, prisons aren't equipped to handle many of the most predictable woes that come with aging, like problems with seeing, hearing and moving around, and age-related illnesses. Basic activities, like washing or climbing out of a narrow bunk bed, become difficult, if not impossible, they say.
"Heart problems, diabetes, cognitive impairment and end-stage liver disease from hepatitis or cirrhosis, these are becoming increasingly common problems in our nation's prisons," said Robert Greifinger, a former chief medical officer for the New York City department of correction.
Several states have established medical facilities on or near prison grounds to treat problems most closely associated with aging. In 2006, for instance, New York opened a facility that specializes in treating inmates with dementia. Prisons in Mississippi, Texas and California have centers that offer specialized treatment for geriatric medical problems.