AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine is not only the oldest state in the nation, the inmates in the state’s correctional facilities are also aging, and that is resulting in higher health care costs and consideration of changes in the way the state houses elderly prisoners.
“This is a calamity that is coming,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “The population in our prisons are getting much older every year, and it is something the next Legislature will have to look at because it is becoming a calamity now, where two or three sessions ago it was just a problem.”
Gerzofsky served on the panel in the House before his election to the Senate in 2008. He said stiffer sentences for some crimes mean inmates are staying behind bars longer, and the state needs to plan on how to handle aging prisoners.
He said one initiative approved by lawmakers to address the issue allows the department to place an inmate in a nursing home if the inmate would not jeopardize public safety. Denise Lord, Maine’s associate commissioner of corrections, said only one inmate is in a nursing home facility.
“No, we have not had much success at placing people in nursing homes,” she said.
Lord said there are 298 men and nine women in the state correctional system older than the age of 50. There are 2,056 inmates in the state system.
“We are doing an analysis of the length of sentences, but I know there are a lot in our system with some long sentences they will serve,” Lord said.
She said there are 416 men and 36 women in their 40s, and while she will not know how many of those still will be in prison in their 60s until the analysis is complete, several are serving long sentences — including life sentences.
Lord said the state’s corrections population is not only aging, it is significantly sicker than those outside the prison walls. When the costs of guarding inmates in a hospital or taking them to a doctor or dentist is added to the actual medical costs, Lord said it is about 25 percent of the department’s entire budget.
“When we send an inmate out, there is at least one guard,” she said. “For some inmates in a hospital, we may have two or three guards 24-7, and that gets expensive.”
Lord said the use of contracted services and a systemwide pharmacy contract has held down health care costs, but she expects the costs will increase over the next several years.
“This is not something you can just sweep under the rug and say let’s just wait and see what happens,” said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, co-chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Committee. “We have been talking with the department about what should be done, but it all comes down to money.”
She said some states have looked at what amounts to a correctional nursing home that provides care for aging inmates and security for the public.
“Some of these inmates, no matter how old, are still a danger to the public,” Haskell said. “We have to remember there are victims of the crimes these prisoners have committed, and we can’t let people out of prison just because they are old.”
Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, served several years as a county commissioner and is a member of the committee. He said the problem of dealing with aging inmates and their health problems has been growing at all levels of corrections, and county jails also are facing some tough choices.
“We know we have to face it,” he said. “Frankly, it is cheaper to house people in a nursing home than in a jail. And as much as I don’t want to see the state in the nursing house business, I think we have to look at it very seriously and not wait for it to be a crisis.”
Haskell said the new state corrections board should work with the counties and the Department of Corrections to develop a plan to address future needs. She said finding resources always has been difficult, but when people are jailed for a crime, the state is responsible for their care — including their health care.
“We are not talking about them spending their golden years in a facility,” she said. “We are talking about doing what we need to do to protect society and what we have to do to take care of prisoners in our care.”
Gerzofsky said the issues around the aging inmate population need to move to the top of the list when lawmakers reconvene in December.