- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

HARDWICK, Ga. (AP) — Razor wire topping the fences seems like a joke at the Men’s State Prison, where many inmates are slumped in wheelchairs or leaning on walkers or canes.

It’s becoming an increasingly common sight: geriatric inmates spending their waning days behind bars. The soaring number of aging inmates now is outpacing prison growth as a whole — and it’s 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 show that the number of inmates aged 55 and older in federal and state prisons increased 33 percent from 2000 to 2005, the most recent year for which data was available. That’s faster than the 9 percent growth overall.

The trend is particularly pronounced in the South, which has some of the nation’s toughest sentencing laws. In 16 Southern states, the growth rate has escalated by an average of 145 percent since 1997, according to the Southern Legislative Conference.

Rising prison health care costs — particularly for elderly inmates — helped fuel a 10 percent jump in state prison spending from fiscal 2005 to 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That growth in spending is projected to continue, the group said.

The graying of the nation’s prisons mirrors the population as whole. But many inmates arrive in prison after years of unhealthy living, such as drug use and risky sex. The stress of life behind bars can often make them even sicker.

And once they enter prison, they aren’t eligible for Medicaid or Medicare, where the costs are shared between the state and federal government, meaning a state shoulders the burden of inmate health care on its own.

Estimates place the annual cost of housing an inmate at $18,000 to $31,000 a year. There is no firm separate number for housing an elderly inmate, but there is widespread agreement that it’s significantly higher than for a younger one.

At Men’s State Prison in central Georgia, the older inmates stick together, said Manson Griffin, 66, and Joe Williams, 62.

They rattle off a list of ailments common to men in their age group: arthritis, high blood pressure, bad backs. Williams wears a neck brace and walks with a cane. Both are taking a laundry list of prescription medications.

Still, Griffin said he’s in fairly good condition compared with some of the older inmates at Men’s, where the average age is 52 and the oldest prisoner is 86.

“It’s heart-rending to see some of the older people in the condition they’re in,” Griffin said. “You have to wonder why they haven’t had a little leniency on them to let them go home?

“What can an 80-year-old man in a wheelchair do? Run?”

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