The national surge in elderly inmates whose medical expenses are straining cash-strapped states has officials looking for solutions, including early release, some possibly to nursing homes, reports the Associated Press. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that elderly prisoners – the fastest growing segment of the prison population, largely because of tough sentencing laws – are three times more expensive to incarcerate than younger inmates. The ACLU estimates that it costs about $72,000 to house an elderly inmate for a year, compared with $24,000 for a younger prisoner.
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the number of men and women in state and federal prisons age 55 and older grew 76 percent between 1999 and 2008, the latest year available, from 43,300 to 76,400. The growth of the entire prison population grew only 18 percent in that period. David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C., said that one in 11 prisoners is serving a life sentence. Washington State has 2,495 inmates who are age 50 or older. There are 270 inmates over the age of 65. The infirm started arriving at a new assisted living facility for inmates when it opened on Feb. 1. The unit has a capacity of 74 inmates. To qualify, an inmate must be disabled and be considered a minimum security risk. The assisted living prisoners need walkers, wheelchairs, and lots of medications. Some experts suggest infirm prisoners could be more cheaply cared for in conventional nursing homes, as people over 50 rarely commit violent crime, Fathi said.