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Missouri Takes Steps to Address the "Graying" of Prison Population

States are grappling with the issues of increased medical care needed as prison populations age and prisons that aren't equipped for the elderly. (Virginia Carter)
States are grappling with the issues of increased medical care needed as prison populations age and prisons that aren't equipped for the elderly. (Virginia Carter)
March 28, 2016

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The number of older Americans serving prison sentences is on the rise, and those facilities weren't originally designed to accommodate an aging population.

Linda Redford is director of the Central Plains Geriatric Education Center at the University of Kansas.

She says Missouri is one state that has gotten ahead of the curve, by setting up enhanced-care units in some of the larger prisons and in some cases, people in prison are learning health-care skills by helping take care of each other.

She says that can benefit the older people, and the younger ones as well.

"I've often heard them say it's a way to pay back for what they've done, for whatever crime they've committed, that they feel now that they're finally able to give back," says Redford. "And in some cases, they know they're probably going to be aging and dying in prison, and they want someone there to care for them."

Redford points out that people in prison age faster than those on the outside, partly because of the lifestyles they led before they were arrested, which often included substance abuse and poverty.

She says most prisons aren't equipped to deal with so many people with cardiac disease, diabetes, dementia and other chronic conditions.

Although some states have an early-release program for elderly prisoners, Redford says that isn't the perfect answer because they often don't have anywhere else to go.

"Partly, we're in this mess because we emptied out all of our state hospitals for the mentally ill, and guess where they ended up," says Redford. "They ended up in our homeless shelters, dead, or in our prisons."

The aging of the prison population costs a lot. The federal Bureau of Prisons saw health-care expenses increase 55 percent from 2006 to 2013, when it spent more than $1 billion.

Every state is having to deal with increases in its older prison population, and Redford says Missouri deserves credit for what's been done so far.

"Missouri has probably moved as quickly as I've seen a state move, in terms of setting up the units within their prisons," says Redford. "But that isn't easy, because you have to retrofit a prison that was never meant for old people."

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MO