Friday, January 7, 2011

Illinois' Graying Prison Population Costs Millions

The Illinois Department of Corrections spends roughly $428 million a year—about a third of its annual budget—keeping elderly inmates behind bars.

The number of older prisoners has expanded sixfold over the past 20 years, to 5,868 today. That segment of the prison population is growing faster than others, too. Inmates over 50 used to represent 5 percent of the state's prison population. In a decade that's grown to nearly 13 percent. If the trend continues, the number of prisoners over 50 will double by 2020, according to the Chicago Reader.

This situation is not unique to Illinois, national numbers mirror the Illinois trend.

The graying prison population has placed new demands on an already burdened prison health system, forcing medical workers to provide care that sometimes doesn't meet IDOC's own standards. Health care costs are rising, largely because of the complexity of treating older prisoners with a constellation of diseases. The Chicago Reader laments that taxpayers are footing the bill for unionized corrections officers to guard inmates who would have trouble making it beyond the infirmary doors without a wheelchair or stretcher.

Adding to the financial drain is the cost of treating seriously ill inmates in a setting that's designed for security rather than medical care. "I don't think they get the best care in our system," Dr. Louis Shicker told the Chicago Reader. "We do the best we can with what we have, but some things are just meant for a nursing-home setting." Providing nursing-home care to the state's sickest prisoners would cost about $57,000 a year, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. That's an annual savings of $16,000 per inmate.

For inmates who don't need nursing-home care, the savings would be even greater, prison reformer Bill Ryan told the Chicago Reader. "If you released just ten reformed, elderly people from the system, we'd save the state $700,000. How many teachers can you hire for $700,000, or a million dollars, even? . . . I think we've got an overall sense of values that are upside down."

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