The aging inmate population poses a big burden for the federal Bureau of Prisons, investigators say in a new report.
Shedding light on one of the higher-cost but lower-profile challenges facing new Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the report from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General spells out the financial and penological implications of having so many senior citizens behind bars.
“Aging inmates are more costly to incarcerate than their younger counterparts due to increased medical needs,” the report notes, adding that “limited institution staff and inadequate staff training affect the (Bureau of Prisons’) ability to address the needs of aging inmates.”
As of September 2013, the Bureau of Prisons incarcerated 164,566 federal inmates in 119 institutions. Inmates age 50 and older were the fastest growing segment of its inmate population, increasing from 24,857 in Fiscal 2009 to 30,962 in Fiscal 2013.
The report observed that the Bureau of Prisons spent approximately $881 million, or 19 percent of its total budget, to incarcerate aging inmates in Fiscal 2013. On average, aging inmates cost 8 percent more to hold than inmates aged 49 or younger.
“We found that this cost differential is driven by increased medical needs, including the cost of medication, for aging inmates,” the investigators stated.
The investigators visited Federal Correctional Institution Butner in North Carolina as part of the review, because the Butner complex that includes a medical center has the highest percentage of aging inmates in the country.
Inmates are experiencing long delays in receiving certain medical care, the investigators found; they are also facing greater dangers within the prisons.
“Aging inmates often require lower bunks or handicapped-accessible cells, but overcrowding throughout the...system limits these types of living spaces,” investigators noted, while “aging inmates with limited mobility also encounter difficulties navigating institutions without elevators and with narrow sidewalks or uneven terrain.”
Aging inmates also tend to be better behaved, making them potentially good candidates for early freedom under a compassionate release program. Though aging inmates comprised 19 percent of the inmate population in 2013, investigators noted, they only accounted for 10 percent of all the inmate misconduct incidents in that year.
In the agency’s official response, the Bureau of Prisons largely agreed with the OIG’s findings and recommendations.
Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the Justice Department, added that the department is “committed to continued implementation” of its compassionate release program, which was expanded in August 2013 to cover elderly inmates, and will review proposals to further expand it.
“Although compassionate release plays a role in mitigating prison overcrowding, sentencing reform legislation is the best method for ensuring that people who have committed low-level, nonviolent drug offenses will not receive unnecessarily long sentences,” Rodenbush said.