As the number of senior citizens locked behind bars skyrockets, cash-strapped states are unable to foot the growing health care bills.
Last month, Human Rights Watch released staggering figures on the human and financial costs of the growth of aging persons behind bars in America. According to their report, from 2007 to 2010 the number of prisoners over age 65 increased by 63 percent, even as the total number of inmates grew by less than one percent. Cash-strapped states are seeing health care costs for their aging, imprisoned population skyrocket.
My home state of Louisiana currently leads the nation in the highest rate of incarceration (PDF). According to the Pew Group, one in every 55 Louisianans is behind bars. The Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper documented that caring for aging inmates costs $80,000 annually, a cost borne fully by the state since inmates do not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. Last summer, Governor Jindal signed House Bill 138 (PDF), making parole possible for non-violent prisoners who are age 60 and older, who have not been convicted of a sexual crime, and who have served a minimum of 10 years.
For years before its signing, the bill had been hotly debated. I witnessed the front lines of this debate as a leader at the non-profit Hospice of Baton Rouge, which played a part in shaping the ground-breaking hospice program at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. That prison became one of the first to offer an end of life care program in which inmates, most of whom will never be eligible for parole, volunteer to train as caregivers for their fellow inmates who are dying. The documentary Serving Life, directed and narrated by Forrest Whitaker and broadcast on Oprah's television network, has brought national attention to the program.