The number of older prisoners in Virginia has more than doubled in the past 10 years, creating new issues for the state’s prison system, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In 1999, Virginia had 2,015 prisoners 50 or older. Today, there are almost 4,700, and by 2011, state officials expect there to be 5,057. A drop in the number of paroles granted to inmates who remain eligible is a factor in the increasing number of older inmates. Truth-in-sentencing reforms that in 1995 led to stiffer, no-parole sentences for violent crimes are expected to contribute to Virginia’s aging prison population.
At the Deerfield prison, wheelchairs and walkers line aisles in the secured assisted-living dormitory, where it would be easy to confuse the frail residents with those in nursing homes. But it would be a mistake to do so. The prison’s goal is to provide older inmates care and some dignity, not freedom. The warden, Keith Davis, who has a master’s degree in social work, makes it clear he is not running a spa for the golden years. Experts say substance abuse, little or no health care before imprisonment and the stress of living behind bars can leave a 50-year-old inmate physiologically 10 to 15 years older than his chronological age. In general, older inmates require more supervision and medical and mental-health care, as well as special diets, mobility aids and special housing. Deerfield ccommodates 1,080 inmates, 90 of them in wheelchairs and 65 percent over 50. Critics point out that many older inmates are far less likely to commit new crimes and could be released at great savings. Prison officials believe their care would largely be at public expense in or out of prison.