The inmate who builds coffins for the burials of fellow prisoners at Angola state penitentiary in Louisiana is having trouble keeping up with demand, according to the Wall Street Journal. The prison has needed one or two of his caskets in each of the last five weeks. At Angola, 97% of inmates now die in prison, up from about 80% a decade ago. “I’ll probably end up making my own,” says the coffinmaker, Richard Leggett.
The rise of lengthy, mandatory sentences and a nationwide tough-on-crime attitude has resulted in a booming prison population — 2.1 million last June, compared with 501,886 in 1980 — and an aging one. The number of inmates dying from natural causes rose to 2,700 in 2002 from 799 in 1982. Inmates often arrive at prison in the physical condition of someone 10 years to 15 years older because of the lack of health care they received while free. Chronic illnesses such as HIV, hepatitis and asthma are prevalent among prisoners, as are histories of alcohol and drug abuse. Texas, which had 43 burials in 1975, is burying about 100 prisoners a year now, at a cost of $1,500 each. Oregon has contracted with local funeral homes to cremate unclaimed deceased inmates and store the ashes. The cost is about $432 per cremation.