Nearly 20 percent of the inmates serving time in Oklahoma prisons are 50 or older.
Thirty years ago, the same segment of the prison population represented just 5 percent of the state's inmates.
According to the latest annual report released by the state Corrections Department, prisoners 50 or older numbered 4,484 in 2012. In 1980, there were only 85 such inmates serving time in Oklahoma prisons.
The report shows the number of inmates 50 and older is expected to increase to 5,254 by the end of 2013. There are roughly 25,000 inmates serving time in Oklahoma prisons.
State Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said the growth in older inmates is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
Massie said long prison sentences and a requirement in Oklahoma that certain offenders serve at least 85 percent of their time behind bars are the two leading factors in the growth of the prison system's 50-and-older segment of the population.
“We expect to see that group continue to grow,” he said. “Life-without-paroles add to that ... we've got 700 or 800 people doing life without parole.”
The latest annual report from the Corrections Department shows that the so-called 85 percent crimes will place a heavy burden on the state agency in the years to come.
Between this year and 2021, those sentenced to 85 percent crimes will cost the prison system an additional $259 million.
“We have a lot of people serving time on 85 percent crimes,” Massie said. “Those people, over time, they turn into your older, elderly inmates.”
Impacts of aging population
Inmate health care expenses, which are only expected to grow as the overall prison population ages behind bars, totaled $59.4 million last year.
In 2000, when the number of inmates 50 or older represented a much small segment of the population, the state prison system spent only $34.2 million for inmate health care expenses.
The latest annual report released by the prison system shows that health care costs can be affected by “market-driven” salary increases for medical professionals, but the primary reasons listed are a growth in inmate population and an “increased average age of offenders.”
“This circumstance is often made worse by offender's tendency for unhealthy lifestyles, coupled with a history of substance abuse or other chronic medical conditions,” a report from 2011 states.
In addition to escalating medical expenses, prison officials have to consider alternative living arrangements for older inmates serving time.
The prison system has one handicap-accessible unit, completed in the mid-2000s at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.
Other measures to accommodate older inmates are ongoing.
Massie said the department has shifted a large group of older inmates to the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena. He said the same kind of shift is currently taking place at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite.
“We are trying to do that as much as possible,” Massie said.
“They can be victimized by the younger inmates, so we're trying to keep them together as much as we can.”
Deaths illustrate aging trend
Even though Oklahoma's prisons are filled with violent criminals and plenty of dangerous individuals, Corrections Department records show that inmate deaths are typically described as natural.
In a report released to The Oklahoman in August, it was revealed that 75.6 percent of the deaths reported at Oklahoma prisons in the previous three years were deemed “natural” by the state medical examiner.
Only 15 of the inmates' deaths were described as “homicides,” a figure that includes prisoners executed by the state.
The report included descriptions of 205 deaths, with 155 of those described as “natural.”