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Aging in prison: Elderly population may triple in 20 years

It’s been 50 years since Minor Smith became a killer. He was unemployed and broke, so he decided to rob a small grocery store in Charlottesville. He hoped no one would recognize him, but the store clerk did.

“He said, ‘Aren’t you Minor Smith?’ and when he said that I panicked," he recalls. "I took the gun out and started firing. I shot into candy bars and cigarettes and one bullet went out the window.”

But another bullet killed the clerk, and Smith has been a prisoner in Virginia ever since. At 76, he’s one of nearly 8,000 inmates over the age of 45.

‘We consider over the age of 50 as geriatric, and that’s because this population ages faster than the general population.”

Virginia DOC Department of Corrections w background

Dr. Steve Herrick is director of health services for the department of corrections, and he’s concerned by how fast the prison population in Virginia is aging.

“Right now it’s at about 5,000 that are 50 and above. In the next 20 years we’re predicting that getting up close to 10-15,000 individuals, so a huge increase in the older population," he says.

And those inmates have many more chronic health problems – heart disease, diabetes, orthopedic injuries and cancer -- which can easily double the cost of medical care.

“I actually have the report from last year.," Herrick says. "Nine point three percent of those in the 60-or-above group are accounting for 30% of our entire medical costs.”

The aging population is a reflection of tougher sentencing in the early 90’s and a decision to abolish parole, but it’s also the result of an increase in the number of older men being convicted – perhaps in response to the #MeToo movement.

“We’re getting people who are in their 40’s or 50’s coming to their first-time incarceration, and a lot of that is related to sex crimes or sexual assault,” Herrick says.

The state does consider geriatric prisoners for parole, but Herrick explains that they can’t be freed without a place to go, and guys like Minor Smith have been in so long that they no longer have relatives who will take them. Five years ago he told me:

“I do have a half-brother in Williamsburg. He’s in his 90’s, and they send me a Christmas card each year, but that’s all I ever hear from them.”

It can also be difficult to place people convicted of a sex crime. Again, the Department of Corrections’ Dr. Steve Herrick.

“In Virginia there is actually a law that if you admit somebody into a nursing home, the administrator has to notify all the residents and all the family members that a sex offender is coming into the facility, so even if the facility is willing to take the person, they don’t like to take that individual and have to send those letters out.”

It may not be possible to release an unknown number of inmates who develop if the courts have sentenced them to life without parole.

“Where it’s a mandatory sentence, you have no method to get them out and find appropriate places in the community for them," says Richard Bonnie, a professor of law at UVA. "I think there are 8th amendment issues here. I mean keeping a person with dementia at some point constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”

In a report produced for the American Bar Association, he says states should start now to figure out how many of their older inmates have dementia.

“We need to systematically begin to do dementia screening in jails and prisons, and then obviously you want to have appropriate custody plans and treatment plans."

Virginia will take a step toward preparing for the flood of older inmates next year when it moves some of them into a shuttered juvenile prison. The old Beaumont Correctional Center is located about mid-way between UVA and VCU medical centers where prisoners are taken for care. That should reduce the time and cost of transporting men like Minor Smith from the current hub for old and ailing inmates in Southhampton County.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief