By KYLE CAMPBELL
Capital News Service
LANSING — When you imagine a state prison inmate, you might think of someone young and tough with arms covered in tattoos and muscles swollen from hours of pumping iron in the yard.
How about wrinkled and gray with arthritic hands gripping a walker or spinning the wheels on a wheelchair?
Despite an overall decline in prison population, the number of inmates above the age of 65 has increased 78 percent to 1,073 during the past decade. Those inmates make up about 2.5 percent of the prison system, but with more baby boomers entering old age, that number will only go up, officials warn.
It’s a fact the Department of Corrections can’t ignore.
“There are some of those institutions, I swear, if you went around with me at chow time you’d think it was a rest home because it’s a wagon-train of wheelchairs to the chow line,” Director Daniel Heyns said.
The most pressing issue when dealing with older inmates is health care, Joanne Sheldon, the department’s health service administrator, said.
With about $300 million of an almost $2 billion budget going toward medical care, health is a substantial cost across the board, Sheldon said,
“When prisoners come to us, they’re actually sicker than the general population because they don’t have access to health care before,” she said. “They tend to get sicker more rapidly.”
Living in close quarters also makes prisoners more susceptible to communicable diseases, Sheldon said. Old age exacerbates these problems and drives up the cost of care.
Corrections is retooling its health care system to accommodate the building wave of elderly prisoners, looking into measures such as opening more units to house them and possibly hiring more aides to help geriatric prisoners perform simple tasks such as feeding themselves and bathing.
The department also is looking at reclassifying what it considers at-risk age groups, possibly dropping the target age range from the traditional 65 and older to as low as 45 years old.
“That’s how much quicker the prison population ages,” Sheldon said.
Lakeland Correctional Facility, a former mental health hospital in Coldwater, houses many of the system’s oldest prisoners, including the oldest, Pinkney Lee McCoy, 88, who was convicted of three counts of first degree criminal sexual conduct against a minor in St. Clair County in 2000.
Many of the 47 prisoners who are 80 or older reside in Lakeland, and although there are inmates of all ages at the facility, the aim is to accommodate the needs of older ones, including more ramps and aides.
Prisoner aides “will help them with a lot of activities,” said Marti Kay Sherry, planning manager for the department’s Bureau of Health Care Services. “Sometimes it’s as simple as helping them in the food line or getting dressed or even bathing.
“Those prisoner aides are really great in determining how their health is progressing because they are in touch with them every single day.”
There also is a secure medical facility in Jackson, Duane Waters Health Center, where prisoners can be sent for treatment of more serious, often terminal illnesses.
American Friends Service Committee Criminal Justice program director Natalie Holbrook said trying to stay healthy in prison can be a futile effort because of a high-sodium diet, lack of health education among prisoners and high frequency of contagious diseases.
Holbrook said Corrections should do preventative care and education of prisoners to maintain their health before medical intervention is necessary.
“It’s also really important to keep raising this up as an issue, especially with young prisoners,” she said. “They’re going to grow old inside and, I think, someday we’re going to realize maybe they’re going to cost too much.”
Just 20 percent of prisoners 65 and older are eligible for parole, Corrections public information officer Russ Marlan said. Forty percent have not reached their earliest release date, and 40 percent are serving life sentences.
The older inmate population is split fairly evenly between long-timers in the midst of lengthy sentences and those recently incarcerated, often for sexual crimes against children, Marlan said
Heyns said the state might open or convert more facilities like Duane Waters or Lakeland to accommodate its elder inmate population.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see more and more geriatric units with less security,” the director said. “It’s pretty hard to escape in a wheelchair.”
He credited a stringent sentencing system that keeps prisoners locked up longer than most other states as contributing to large numbers of long-time inmates of all ages.
If the state wants to reduce corrections costs, Heyns said, it might want to consider methods of reducing time served, particularly for older inmates who pose less of a threat to society.
“It’s a decision we need to talk about,” he said. “You can keep them locked up, but get ready to write the check.”