How Old Is Too Old In “Get Tough” Imprisonment?

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When should elderly inmates be released? The Christian Science Monitor explores that issue. Corrections officials nationwide are debating the idea of releasing some of the elderly and infirm as seniors represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. With a prison and jail population exceeding 2 million, states must pay the rising cost of health care behind bars. Special care costs an average of $70,000 per inmate compared with $22,000 for a healthy inmate.

The Monitor says the issue is controversial in places like Georgia, where the public is ambivalent. Eighty-four percent of Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to deny parole to violent repeat offenders, and many states have eliminated parole boards in favor of truth-in-sentencing laws. Georgia had about 500 older prisoners in 1980; it now houses 4,416. Nationally, the elderly prison population doubled in a decade to 121,000, 9 percent of the total.

Pennsylvania has built a state-of-the-art geriatric care facility for infirm prisoners. About half the states offer hospice care for their frailest inmates. At Angola Prison in Louisiana, a team of prisoners cares for the dying. Ohio has created fitness-in-prison programs for older inmates.

Georgia has released 49 inmates due to health issues. The state’s chief parole officer, Milton “Buddy” Nix Jr., met with elderly inmates at Men’s Prison to determine if some should be let out to ease the budget crisis. Some officials say higher costs were figured into “get tough” laws. “The growing number of older prisoners comes as no surprise,” says Georgia’s Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, noting that crime has decreased here since the sentencing laws took effect. “We have the tools to deal with this challenge.”

Yesterday in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says, corrections officials agreed to recommend budget cuts that would close 15 facilities — possibly including some prisons — and eliminate almost 1,200 jobs. The $69 million in cuts to the department’s budget for the year that begins in July 2004 also would trim some religious and educational programs for inmates.

Cuts would not affect the department’s “core” duties, said Alan Adams, acting assistant commissioner of corrections.


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