The State Correctional Institution Laurel Highlands near Pittsburgh looks more like a nursing home than a prison, says the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Elderly men move about in wheelchairs. In the medical unit, inmates lie hooked up to some of the 15 dialysis machines. A man named Dale is lying in bed, watching Clint Eastwood in “Honkytonk Man,” when he sits up to greet a visitor. He’s a sex offender, 62, who came here two years ago from another prison after suffering a stroke that paralyzed his arm.
Laurel Highlands is a geriatric prison, one of the first in America when it was converted from a state mental hospital in 1996. While most of the 900 prisoners are classified as general-population, about 250 are old or sick and housed according to need: geriatric, wheelchair users and long-term care. The waiting list to get in stands at 133, and a new $6 million medical wing is on the way. Prisons like this one have become common as the 1.3 million people behind bars in America grow grayer each year. In 1990, there were 33,499 prisoners in state and federal lockups who were 50 or older; by 2002, that number was about 125,000, says Tennessee college professor Ronald Aday. In Pennsylvania, the number of inmates 55 and older increased from 1,892 in September 2001 to 2,520 by last December. Part of the jump is the result of the aging baby boom generation. “That population bulge is a factor,” said criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s just that there’s more of them.”