A growing population of elderly inmates is driving up prison medical care costs to the point that some Texas lawmakers would like to see more of those who are feeble and chronically ill released early.
In the last decade, the number of inmates 55 and older has spiked as much as 8 percent each year, growing to about 12,500, while the general inmate population has remained fairly flat.
In prisons across the country, inmates grow old serving longer sentences and enter prison at an older age. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of inmates 55 and older in state and federal prisons increased by 76 percent to 76,400 inmates, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The general population grew by 18 percent.
With rising medical care costs and dwindling state budgets, policy-makers and prison officials have struggled to keep pace. Elderly inmates in Texas make up 8 percent of the state's prison population, yet they account for more than 30 percent of prison hospitalization costs.
In fiscal 2010, the state spent more than $545 million on inmate health care. It paid $4,853 per elderly offender for care compared with $795 for inmates under 55, according to the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee.
"It's no different than in the free world," said Dr. Owen Murray, chief physician and vice president of offender services for the University of Texas Medical Branch, which provides most of the state's prison medical care.
"They're more expensive because they have more medical needs."
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