The editorial puts it even more starkly, echoing themes regular Grits readers will recognize: "According to a report from Human Rights Watch, in 2010 roughly 125,000 of the nation’s 1.5 million inmates were 55 years of age and over. This represented a 282 percent increase between 1995 and 2010, compared with a 42 percent increase in the overall inmate population. If the elderly inmate population keeps growing at the current rate, as is likely, the prison system could soon find itself overwhelmed with chronic medical needs."Dementia in prison is an underreported but fast-growing phenomenon, one that many prisons are desperately unprepared to handle. It is an unforeseen consequence of get-tough-on-crime policies — long sentences that have created a large population of aging prisoners. About 10 percent of the 1.6 million inmates in America’s prisons are serving life sentences; another 11 percent are serving over 20 years.
And more older people are being sent to prison. In 2010, 9,560 people 55 and older were sentenced, more than twice as many as in 1995. In that same period, inmates 55 and older almost quadrupled, to nearly 125,000, a Human Rights Watch report found.
Most of the main story is about a California program that trains inmates with good behavior records to provide care for inmates with dementia, Alzheimer's, or other such disabilities. But Texas and other high-incarceration states face similar dynamics. Older prisoners are both one of the fastest growing segments of the inmate population and among the most costly, mainly because of high healthcare expenses.
Just as society increasingly uses prisons and jails in lieu of mental hospitals, they're beginning to also replace nursing home beds for a small but rapidly growing class of elderly prisoners. Over the next five to ten years Grits expects this to become one of the central challenges of modern prison management, not to mention a source of increasingly poignant moral conundrums for the legislature and the parole board. There are no easy answers for the questions that arise when the end of life nears, either for families when tasked with such decisions or the state when acting in loco parentis.