Saturday, September 11, 2010

Do Geriatric Prisons Promote Public Safety?

In 1990, Virginia had 900 inmates over the age of 50. Now there are more than 5,000. According the Washington Post, the numbers have soared since the General Assembly abolished parole for the newly convicted in 1995. The “tough on crime” posture of the violent 1990’s has resulted in bulging prisons, expanding corrections budgets and the formation of the prison industrial complex.

Virginia’s problem is just an example of what nearly every state is experiencing—an aging prison population and the resulting medical and geriatric costs. The Post describes what prison officials have dubbed the “wheelchair brigade” at the Deerfield Corrections Center in Virginia.

Everyday just before lunch time, 60 men in wheelchairs stream across the prison courtyard and into the mess hall, followed closely by a group of inmates hobbling on canes, leaving the blind and the senile to shuffle inside last.

The Post reported that the daily migration does not include the two rooms full of elderly inmates too weak to make it outside.

Geriatric prisons are not unique to Virginia. In Pennsylvania, the infirm and elderly are housed predominately at Laurel Highlands Correctional Facility in Somerset, Pennsylvania.

The cost to states to house and care for geriatric or unhealthy inmates is enormous. The Post reported it costs $28,800 annually to house an inmate at the geriatric prison, compared with the $19,000 at most of the Virginia's medium-security prisons. That is nearly a 50-percent increase in cost.

The obvious questions are: What risk is a 75-year-old, wheelchair bound, dialysis patient to society? Do prison wheelchair brigades contribute to the public good? Balance those questions with a high price tag and the morality of confining offenders until there death and the true scope of the problem comes into focus.

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