As Arizona’s prison population ages, taxpayers shoulder the burden of inmate healthcare

Local researchers tell us an inmate older than 55 costs more than double a younger inmate on average. You - the taxpayer - are the one shouldering that burden. 

Angela Watson couldn't wait to tell me about her fiancé, Robert Younger.

"He’s the sweetest man on earth." 

She doesn't have any photos other than the one in a prison uniform of Robert because the couple met while homeless and addicted. Their lives changed when Angela says Robert sold meth to an undercover police officer in 2016. 
"He was just sadly an addicted man who saw an opportunity to maybe get something for himself.. and thought the better of it later.. and went ahead and they caught him."
The prison paperwork says he'll get out in June, but at 55 years old, Angela says his medical problems behind bars have grown. 
"He had a problem with his stomach. He found out in prison it was diverticulitis which is pretty serious, pretty painful."
You can add depression and insulin-dependent diabetes to the list. 
Because it's happening in prison, all of it is costing taxpayers. Every shot, every appointment, every checkup and medication costs the state. 

It's a good question and one that's becoming more important to the state's bottom line every day.
The portion of inmates at state prisons 55 and older has increased nearly a full percent every year since 2018. Then it was 10.4%. Now 13% of state prisoners are in the highest age category.

"The older the population, the more expensive they become, because people age in prison 10 years faster than the general population," explained Michael Polakowski of the University of Arizona’s Rombach Institute on Crime, Delinquency and Corrections.
Polakowski says already the state's prison system is expensive. 

A look at the Governor's proposal for the next fiscal year reveals of the states $12.3 billion-dollar budget, the third largest portion, or 10% will go to prisons.
Polakowski says the percentage will only go up and prisoners 55 and over cost more than double an average inmate.
"Because everything is supposed to be provided for them by the state, now that they’re incarcerated by the state," said Polakowski.
The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry said in a statement, "Currently, all inmates have access to chronic care clinics, prescription medications as deemed necessary, specialty clinics (on and off complex), as well as assistive equipment."
Polakowski said the reason the population is skewing older is because of truth in sentencing laws passed in the 1990s.

Supporters of Truth in sentencing say it prevents crime by keeping criminals behind bars longer.  It also provides certainty to victims to know how much time will actually be served in prison. 
As the prisoners get older, the medical conditions mount.
According to state inmate data, more than 4,000 prisoners have a medical score of at least 3 or worse. That means at the minimum, they require special housing or reasonable accommodations. 
The Department of Corrections added, "We have ADA compliant beds and living areas for those with physical limitations, and specific housing for those with recurring medical needs."
"Prisons are not built like nursing homes. You have many elderly people in prison who need walkers, canes, wheelchairs. So, you have accessibility issues," said Molly Gill, who spoke to us from her D.C. office representing Families Against Mandatory Minimums - or FAMM.
She says Arizona and Iowa are the only two states that don't have a compassionate release system for prisoners.
"If you can move some of these elderly and ill people out of your prison system, you can put them into the community where their family can maybe pay for their health care or they can go on Medicare for example and then the state and the federal government are splitting those costs of their health care."
Arizona does offer medical clemency, but it requires the governor’s approval and can only be used by prisoners weeks from death.
"He’s getting psychiatric care; he’s getting chronic care in prison," said Angela, who is happy that Robert will get out in June, but had hoped it would be earlier. 
"If he were out and he had the access to plan, he’d be able to go to an internal doctor and get right away on the right kind of medications and diet."
And she says the taxpayer healthcare costs of older prisoners is adding up.
"It is really affecting everyone. Not just me."

Proposed bills aim to address problem

In the Arizona State Legislature, there are currently several bills that aim to address the problem of cost.

"Taxpayers pay $25,000 per inmate. That’s with the healthcare, so the longer these folks are in there and they’re out getting their healthcare, that price tag is going to rise," said State Rep. Walt Blackman.

State Rep. Blackman, a Republican, has several bills this legislative session to aims to address the "truth in sentencing" provisions in Arizona law. Under such provisions, most inmates are required to serve 85% of their sentence.

Arizona House Bill 2713, which would allow inmates to earn time towards an earlier release passed, but so far it hasn’t advanced through the Senate.

During a committee hearing, the Arizona Association of Counties defended current sentencing.

"Victims expect a certain level of treatment when they hear the sentence, and making this retroactive will mean that a lot of them will see releases far earlier than they’re expecting," said Ryan Boyd.

State Rep. Blackman said it doesn't fix the underlying problem.

"If we don’t get ahold of that in Arizona, we are going to see the high cost, the rise of taxpayer dollars paying for these inmates the cost of healthcare, the cost of educating, and then when they get out, the cost of them returning to prison, if we don’t fix it," said State Rep. Blackman.

READ: HB2713 - release credits; prisoners

MORE: Arizona State Senate - Truth in Sentencing Research Brief

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