A prison in Missouri's capital now has a geriatric wing as state officials confront an increasingly elderly inmate population.
The "enhanced care unit" opened Jan. 1 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. The 36-bed unit is designed as a miniature nursing home, a place where elderly convicts in wheelchairs, strapped to oxygen tanks or struggling with dementia can be segregated from the general prison population.
Prisoners older than 50 represented 6 percent of Missouri state inmates in 1998; two decades later, that figure increased to 15 percent.
State officials plan to open similar units in five more state prisons and eventually build a separate prison hospital for elderly inmates, complete with a dementia unit and a dialysis lab.
Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff questions whether the state can afford such specialized care.
"I don't think the public is really all that keen on spending hundreds of millions of dollars on running nursing homes in prison for old - dare I say - harmless guys," he said.
Wolff heads the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, an independent body that monitors the effects of the state sentencing structure and recommends evidence-based reforms. So far, none of the commission's recommendations have become law.
The rapid growth in the state's aging prison population - as well as the overall prison population - has been driven not by an uptick in crime but by state sentencing policies, including:
• A 1979 capital murder statute that requires convicted murderers to serve 50 years before being eligible for release;
• A 1984 first-degree murder statute, which removed parole eligibility altogether;
• The 1994 Truth in Sentencing Act, which required certain offenders to serve greater percentages of their sentences before being eligible for parole. This act also imposed heftier mandatory minimums for more crimes overall.
Among Missouri's 4,700 elderly inmates is Jack Lindsey, 63, imprisoned for nearly 27 years for killing a St. Louis County deputy while on LSD. Lindsey underwent back surgery six years ago. And will soon need another operation. He receives epidural steroid injections for the pain every four months.
Lindsey said he thinks he and other elderly inmates deserve a second chance.
"Contrary to what the public believes, there are guys in here who made a bad decision in life, but they're not all bad people," he said.
Medical and corrections officials say that due to a variety of factors - including backgrounds that often include drug and alcohol abuse, high-stress lifestyles and a chronic lack of proper medical care - prisoners tend to age more quickly than people on the outside.
That's why most state corrections agencies classify inmates as "geriatric" at age 50 or 55, the common age when inmates' health begins deteriorating.
Across the country, older inmates pose a much lower risk of recidivism than their younger counterparts, statistics show. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, people released from prison at age 20 or younger have a recidivism rate of 23 percent for new crimes after two years. For those older than 70, only 3.5 percent commit new crimes.