July 16, 2013

Aging prisoners' costs put systems nationwide in a bind

7-16-2013 Louisiana:

This 'national epidemic' includes packed prisons, high-cost medical care and dwindling resources. This all begs the question: Should frail, incapacitated inmates be there?

ANGOLA, La. — For decades, the Louisiana State Penitentiary has taken great pride in its vast farming operations, as well as its reputation as one of the toughest lockups in America.

The crops and cattle raised by prisoners on the remote 18,000 acres ringed by razor wire have long gone to feed Angola's 5,000 inmates, with enough left over to stock the novelty hot sauce and jelly products sold in the prison museum.

Yet Warden Burl Cain said something is happening on "the farm" that threatens the bounty it reaps every year.

Aging, sick and disabled prisoners are seriously limiting the numbers that can be deployed to tend the land. Of the 1,000 who typically work the fields, Cain said he's lucky if 600 to 700 are physically able to do the job. After all, a third of all inmates are older than 50, and many are so debilitated that the state spends north of $100,000 per inmate to care for them.

"This place was not built to accommodate people like this," Cain said. "I'm telling you, we're really feeling it."

So are the rest of America's vast, aging prison populations.

The fiscal, legal, social and political challenges of housing this country's graying inmates have arrived with full force at precisely the time when states, and the federal government, are looking to rein in spending. A problem swelling for decades has become "a national epidemic," according to a 2012 report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yet efforts to address an issue that will only worsen with time have largely floundered, ensuring that even incapacitated inmates ridden with tumors or paralyzed by Parkinson's disease live their last days in prison hospitals. The enormous medical costs required to maintain this status quo will inevitably sap money from other areas of government that affect residents who will never set foot near these penitentiaries. ..continued.. by Kevin Johnson and H. Darr Beiser

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