Monday, February 20, 2012

The graying of America's prisons

Outside the small town of Somerset, 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and just a twenty-minute drive from field where Flight 93 plunged to the ground on 9/11, doctors and nurses provide around-the-clock medical care to more than 100 elderly and chronically ill men, offering them everything from nutritional support to end-of-life care.

The patients exhibit many of the same ailments as patients in any other long-term care facility in the state, including respiratory ailments, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and pulmonary disorders. But they share one significant difference: These patients are under the care of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and even if their prognoses were to miraculously improve, many of them will still die behind these walls.

Welcome to the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s only prison that is specially tasked with handling what is becoming a serious problem across the state and the nation: a surge in the number of sick and elderly prison inmates.

According to a report from Human Rights Watch released last month, the number of senior citizens under American correctional supervision is higher than it’s ever been, and growing at an alarming rate. The study found the number of state and federal prisoners that are 55 or older — the official threshold for old age behind bars — grew at six times the rate of the overall prison population between 1995 and 2010. The number of prisoners over 65, meanwhile, surged 63 percent — or 94 times the rate of the general prison population — in the three years prior to 2010.

Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch and the author the report, blamed the increase on “tough on crime” policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws and the now more than four-decades-long War on Drugs.

“Prisons were never designed to be geriatric facilities,” she said, “yet U.S. corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars.”  Click here to read this article at The Philadelphia Tribune