January 12, 2016

Lawmakers consider options for aging prisoners, including nursing home care

1-12-16 Vermont:

When Meg McCarthy’s husband went to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center for chemotherapy, she wasn’t allowed to be with him.

When he was later hospitalized at Springfield Hospital for pneumonia, she could sit by his side, but not touch him.

McCarthy’s husband, 63-year-old Richard Gagnon, was diagnosed with tonsil cancer while serving a 17-year sentence for second degree murder.

“It broke my heart to think of my husband in shackles going to cancer treatment,” McCarthy said. “He was so weak, so tired. What was he going to do?”

Gagnon’s situation is not unique and is likely to become more common.

Vermont’s older prison population has nearly doubled in size over the past 11 years. As of July 1, 2014, 16.1 percent of Vermont inmates were age 50 or older, up from 8.8 percent a decade earlier.

According to Human Rights Watch, Vermont is part of a national trend. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of prisoners age 65 and up grew by 63 percent, while the total incarcerated population increased by just 0.7 percent. The Economist reported in 2013 that a third of American inmates will be over age 55 by 2030.

As inmates age and their medical needs become more complex, lawmakers and state officials are considering whether the state’s correctional system is well-suited to serve the prison population.

Gagnon, who pled guilty to second degree murder three years ago, was in an out-of-state prison in Kentucky when he had a persistent sore throat. He was treated by on-site medical staff, and eventually had an appointment with an oncologist, who confirmed he had cancer on his tonsils and tongue.

The Department of Corrections transferred him back to Vermont, lodging him in Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield. He began treatment at Dartmouth Hitchcock the day before Thanksgiving last year.

McCarthy says the department told her that she could not be there for Gagnon’s chemotherapy, and she wasn’t allowed to touch him when he was hospitalized with pneumonia, she said.

McCarthy questions the need to keep older people in prison.

“People shouldn’t be incarcerated unless they’re a risk to the community, and I would maintain that people that are 75, 85 years of age and in wheelchairs are not a threat to the community,” McCarthy said. ..Continued.. by Elizabeth Hewitt

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