In Missouri, the percentage of state prisoners age 50 and over has doubled in the past ten years, rising to 15.3 percent of all inmates in fiscal year 2010, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch, titled "Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States." That change represents a 214 percent spike.
But it's not as if Missouri is leading the country in older inmates. The authors of the report visited twenty prisons in nine states to interview prison officials, academics and inmates. The report concluded that prisons across the country are struggling to meet the needs of older inmates for a variety or reasons, including low budgets, outdated prison architecture, limited medical facilities and lack of support from elected officials.
Among the prisons studied, the report found that the number of U.S. state and federal prisoners age 65 and older grew at 94 times the rate of the total prison population between 2007 and 2010, largely because of increasing life sentences. Going further back, between 1995 and 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners age 55 or older nearly quadrupled (increasing 282 percent), while the number of all prisoners grew by less than half (increasing 42 percent). There are now 124,400 prisoners age 55 or older.
Here in Missouri, the authors of the report found that 6.5 percent of state prisoners are over 55. That's compared to figures of 9.9 percent, 7.5 percent and 7.4 percent for Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas, respectively. Among the 24 states listed, the authors reported lower percentages in Maryland (6.1 percent), South Carolina (6 percent) and North Dakota (5 percent).
The report hints that the difficulties in properly caring for older inmates does not stem from lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of resources. The Missouri Department of Corrections Aging Offenders Management Team has already recommended the development of Enhanced Care Units which would have no top bunks, daily rounds by health services staff, organized activities to keep offenders busy and oriented, assistance from other offenders trained to be helpers and special assistance with meals for older inmates.
The Enhanced Care Unit program was designed "to keep offenders as functional as possible while providing appropriate health and housing services to accommodate their special needs," according to Human Rights Watch.
The authors of the report relied on a handful of state publications, including the Missouri Department of Corrections 2010 annual report and the department's 2010 report titled "A Profile of the Institutional and Supervised Offender Population."
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