Who hasn’t seen “The Shawshank Redemption” featuring aging convicts Red Redding (Morgan Freeman) and Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore)? The movie was set in the 1940s when most prisoners were young tough guys and of course in this case the cerebral Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins). Redding and Hatlen were finally set free after spending 40 and 50 years behind bars, respectively.
If Shawshank were to be remade today, a good share of the inmate population would have gray hair and be suffering from various medical problems. Ashby Jones and Joanna Chung write for The Wall Street Journal that the number of state and federal prisoners aged 55 or older has quadrupled since 1995 far outpacing the growth of the overall prison population that has grown by a considerable 42 percent.
“Prisons are facing a silver tsunami,” according to Jamie Fellner, the author of the Human Rights Watch study that identifies the new problem for states. “Walk through any prison and you’ll see a surprising number of wheelchairs and walkers and portable-oxygen tanks.”
“Prisons were never designed to be geriatric facilities,” says Fellner. “Yet U.S. corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars.”
Prisons are not equipped with wheelchair ramps and other accommodations for the elderly. At the same time, the U.S. Constitution requires that prisoners receive adequate health care and basic necessities. So while state budgets continue to be squeezed, it’s estimated that a third of the nation’s prison population will be over 50 by 2030 at a cost currently running $70,000 per older prisoner per year.
America’s prison population has ramped up from fewer than 800,000 in 1980 to over 2.5 million by 2008. And many non-violent prisoners will go gray behind gray bars. In the rest of the world, committing a nonviolent crime is far less likely to land you in prison, and if it does it’s a short stay.
For example, the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks is the United States. Buying too much allergy medicine can get you 20 years behind bars.
“Heart problems, diabetes, cognitive impairment and end-stage liver disease from hepatitis or cirrhosis, these are becoming increasingly common problems in our nation’s prisons,” said Robert Greifinger, a former chief medical officer for the New York City department of correction.
Several states have established medical facilities on or near prison grounds to treat problems most closely associated with aging. In 2006, for instance, New York opened a facility that specializes in treating inmates with dementia. Prisons in Mississippi, Texas and California have centers that offer specialized treatment for geriatric medical problems.
A.T. Wall, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections and president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, tells the HuFF Post that he and his colleagues regularly exchange ideas on how to cope with the surging numbers of older prisoners.
Retrofitting cells with handicap toilets and garb bars are the least of their problems. “Dementia can set in, and an inmate who was formerly easy to manage becomes very difficult to manage,” he said.
Cash strapped states are starting to set elderly prisoners free so the state doesn’t have to pay for their needs.
In “Shawshank,” Brooks and Red wanted to go back to prison once they were let out. Modern prisoners will likely want to stay as well, just for the healthcare.