Prisons’ Costly Dilemma: Caring for Elderly Prisoners : Punishment: Younger, more dangerous men are released while aging inmates sentenced to life without parole cost the system millions.


Harvey Edwards had a stroke three months after he was sent to prison in 1987 for child molestation. Now 60, he is confined to a wheelchair and is mostly blind.

He takes two insulin shots a day for diabetes and from 16 to 32 pills a day for his heart and high blood pressure.

“I just sit or stay in bed and sleep mostly,” Edwards said. “It’s like two different people--the one they arrested and the one they’ve got locked up now.”

Edwards and perhaps as many as 400 other chronically ill and elderly prisoners fill the hospital at the Louisiana State Prison and overflow into the general population. They cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually and remain behind bars while more dangerous prisoners are turned out, said Tulane University law professor Jonathan Turley.


“We’re reaching what I call institutional meltdown,” Turley said. “We can’t build cells fast enough to keep up with the growing population. We must work out a system to release less-dangerous prisoners--geriatric, low-risk prisoners--to make room for younger, dangerous ones.”

Turley is the founder of Tulane’s Project for Older Prisoners (POPS), believed to be the first in the nation to deal exclusively with elderly prisoners.

The percentage of elderly prisoners is relatively small now but it is growing rapidly, Turley said. Nationally, there are about 20,000 prisoners over 55, and he expects that to double by 1992.

“We can’t house all the prisoners who are coming into the system,” Turley said. “People will be released. It just makes sense to release the low-risk ones, the ones least likely to commit a new crime.”

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report in 1989 found age to be the single most reliable indicator in predicting recidivism.

“Statistics show that prisoners between 18 and 24 have a recidivism rate of about 22% within a year of their release,” Turley said. “A prisoner over 45 has only about a 2% rate of recidivism.”

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia are under court order to reduce prison crowding.

In 1989 a record number of new cells were constructed nationwide to handle the population overflow, Turley said.


“Prisons are becoming our fastest-growing industry but they aren’t keeping pace with the population,” he said. “In 1988 we built more jail cells in this country than any other country in history. We had a 5.2% increase in prison cells. At the same time the prison population expanded at the rate of 7.4%.”

In the federal system the cost will be $3.8 billion to $5.5 billion for the estimated 57,000 to 83,000 new cells needed by 1997, Turley said. By the year 2000, a new cell will cost a projected $200,000.

The problem is widespread, with different states trying various versions of early release programs.

Louisiana will need almost 4,700 more beds by 1995. Of the more than 12,000 state prisoners, nearly 4,000 are in parish (county) jails, forcing prisoners there to be released early to avoid overcrowding.


The state now has 16,000 outstanding felony warrants but arrests are not being made because the state has no place to put the prisoners.

In New Orleans, Sheriff Charles Foti has been releasing prisoners charged with misdemeanors and minor felonies to make room in the jail.

Indiana imposed a one-week moratorium last summer on new prison admissions, then enacted a policy to accept prisoners only on a space-available basis. The Legislature is considering spending $56 million on a new 650-bed prison.

Tennessee has been under court order since 1982 to reduce crowding and upgrade its prisons. The state’s early-release policies prompted a $250-million project to build six new prisons and a sentence reform law last year that reduced time in jail for many nonviolent crimes.


Montana’s prison has had chronic overcrowding. Currently 1,100 prisoners are in a facility designed for 744. State law allows early eligibility for parole when the prison exceeds capacity for more than 30 days.

Oregon has released prisoners early for years. The state also has a rotating bunk system, whereby an inmate is released for seven days while another takes his bunk. When the first inmate returns, someone else is released for a week.

Last year in April the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles began an emergency early release of 3,000 prisoners to avert a threatened federal lawsuit. Georgia’s prisons were about 110% over capacity, with 4,000 state prisoners backed up in county jails. By September, it had dropped to 40% over capacity, with 1,400 prisoners backed up.

However, while the release program was going on, Georgia still recorded a 4.8% increase in prisoners in the first six months of 1989, reaching 20,000 prisoners and climbing.


Under the POPS program, 200 Tulane University law students are compiling medical and legal histories of all Louisiana inmates 55 and older.

Louisiana has 799 prisoners who are 60 or older, said Martha Jumonville of the Department of Corrections. As of December, 1989, 1,989 prisoners faced sentences of life, 266 faced 99 years and 928 faced between 35 and 98 years.

Other than medical furloughs for the severely disabled, there are no special provisions for releasing the elderly or impaired, Jumonville said.

Fewer than 10 medical furloughs have been granted in the last year, prison officials say. To qualify, a prisoner must be recommended by the warden and medical staff and must be permanently incapacitated or expected to die within six months, said Jane Bankston, a consultant to the secretary of corrections.


They must also have someone who agrees to care for them and pay all their medical expenses, said Deputy Warden Richard Peabody.

Prisoners eligible for parole may apply for consideration every six months. Because most of the elderly inmates were sentenced without the possibility of parole, they must first apply for a pardon, which can only be done once a year and must be granted by the governor.

The average expense for medical care and maintenance for inmates over 55 is $69,000 a year, about three times the average for other inmates, Turley said.

“The costs of keeping these men in prison is staggering,” Turley said. “The suffering it inflicts on the elderly prisoner who can’t get proper care and lives in fear of younger inmates is appalling.”