California Struggling with Growing Numbers of Elderly Prisoners

Associated Press

10 June 2002

VACAVILLE, Calif. (AP) – The state’s prisons are experiencing a steep and subsequently costly rise in the number of elderly inmates.

The number of inmates 55 and older has nearly tripled in a dozen years to 5,800, comprising 4 percent of the prison population. The trend is a result of more stringent parole and longer sentences, notably through the “three strikes” law that makes repeat offenders eligible for terms of 25 years to life.

Older inmates are less violent and dangerous but housing them may cost three times as much as housing younger inmates, studies show.

Last year, the state spent $676 million on inmate medical care, nearly twice as much as seven years ago. Officials can’t say how much of that went for elderly patients, but the elderly they fall ill more often and are more likely to require expensive care for problems such as cancer and dementia.

Ernest Pendergrass, 79, serving a life sentence at the Vacaville prison, has survived four types of cancer and a stroke. His daughter, a pharmacist, estimated that his 12 daily pills run $1,800 a month.

Although California has the nation’s largest penal system, with 33 lockups, it does not have a rules for the handling of elderly inmates, who are mixed in with the regular prison population.

In other states, including Louisiana, North Carolina and Ohio, the elderly are housed in special units or entire prisons of their own.

Youth and Adult Correctional Secretary Robert Presley said change is overdue. He told the Los Angeles Times for a story Sunday that he wants to put old inmates in one prison.

“We’re not talking about mollycoddling prisoners,” said Jonathan Turley, law professor and founder of the Project for Older Prisoners, a national advocacy group. “It’s a matter of realizing your population is not homogenous and taking steps that can save a lot of money.”

Another option, freeing old inmates, repeatedly has failed to win support.

Assemblyman John Longville, D–Rialto, sponsored a 1999 bill to shift some inmates over 60 to nursing centers or home detention. It died in the Assembly.

“A lot of people around here have no interest in letting anybody out of prison,” Longville said. “It’s almost a religious thing. It’s certainly not a pragmatic approach.”

National studies show that only about 2 percent of men paroled after 55 return to prison.