OKLAHOMA lawmakers through the years have burnished their tough-on-crime bona fides through legislation that helps ensure offenders get locked away for a long time. Most sessions of the Legislature are light on corrections reform measures; instead, bills that create new punishments, or expand punishments for existing crimes, are the norm.
There are near-term consequences for this approach. One is that Oklahoma’s prisons stay at or near capacity, leaving corrections offers badly outmanned most of the time. The crowding is increasing as the head of the Department of Corrections tries to save his agency money by removing state inmates from county jails.
A significant long-term result of the status quo is that more inmates stay behind bars longer. The expansion of “85 percent” crimes — those that require offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being considered for parole — is a key driver of this trend.
A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation found that from 2007 to 2011, the number of inmates 55 or older in Oklahoma grew to nearly 8 percent of the total prison population, from 6.6 percent. That total is now approaching 9 percent.
The problem of aging prisoners isn’t Oklahoma’s alone. All states face it to some degree. According to Pew and data from the Association of State Correctional Administrators, Oregon and Vermont lead the nation with 14 percent of their inmates 55 or older. West Virginia and Montana have 13 percent; Massachusetts, Illinois and Wyoming have 10 percent.
A growing number of older inmates means more inmates with dementia or other age-related health issues. A few years ago, the state removed inmates younger than 40 from the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. The violence rate dropped significantly, but the number of medical visits more than doubled.
The head of health services for the DOC says the agency has been preparing for the continued increase in older inmates by using some options outlined in the Pew study, such as pushing for early medical paroles and trying to make good use of Medicaid reimbursements.
Some states in recent years have tried to contract with private nursing homes to care for aging and disabled inmates granted “medical parole.” But those efforts have received a cool reception from private facilities and the communities where they’re located.
Stateline.org notes that Connecticut tried something different two years ago. It asked the commercial nursing home industry to provide a facility that would accept inmates who required long-term nursing care. A 95-bed nursing facility opened in 2013 and is now half occupied. The facility is certified to receive Medicaid payments, which means the state will save about $5 million in health care costs annually once it’s filled.
The number of inmates nationwide is expected to grow threefold in the next 15 years, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. So prison costs will only continue to rise as well.
“Prisons aren’t equipped philosophically, legally or personnel-wise to deal with the elderly in any way,” Donna Strugar-Fritsch, a consultant with Health Management Associates, told stateline.org. “It’s already a failed experiment for prisons to be serving as mental institutions. It will be another failed experiment if prisons try to serve as nursing homes.”
Oklahoma policymakers should heed the warning.