It’s becoming an increasingly common sight: geriatric inmates spending their waning days behind bars, reports the Associated Press. The soaring number of aging inmates is outpacing prison growth as a whole. Tough sentencing laws passed in the crime-busting 1980s and 1990s are largely to blame. It’s all fueling an explosion in inmate health costs for cash-strapped states. “It keeps going up and up,” said Alan Adams, director of Health Services for the Georgia Department of Corrections. “We’ve got some old guys who are too sick to get out of bed. And some of them, they’re going to die inside. The courts say we have to provide care, and we do. But that costs money.”
Justice Department statistics say the number of inmates in federal and state prisons age 55 and older shot up 33 percent from 2000 to 2005. That’s faster than the 9 percent growth overall. The trend is pronounced in the South, which has some of the toughest sentencing laws. In 16 Southern states, the growth rate has escalated by an average of 145 percent since 1997, says the Southern Legislative Conference. Rising prison health care costs – particularly for elderly inmates – helped fuel a 10 percent jump in state prison spending from 2005 to 2006, says the National Conference of State Legislatures. Estimates put the annual cost of housing an inmate at $18,000 to $31,000. There is no separate number for housing an elderly inmate, but there is wide agreement that it’s significantly higher than for a younger one.