Last week, the Pew Charitable Trust Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation released a report examining state prison health care spending. Overall, Maine has the eighth highest percentage of elderly prisoners in the country, with 15.2% of the population over the age of 50. 

As a result of 40 years of tough-on-crime sentencing, our criminal justice system has seen an unprecedented expansion. Our prison population has almost quadrupled, and with it so too has the number of elderly people in prison - with the number expected to increase nationwide by 4,400% from 1981 to 2030.

Like older people in the general population, elderly prisoners tend to be more susceptible to chronic health and medical conditions, translating into higher health care costs. In 2011, Maine spent $17 million dollars on prisoner heath care (about 8,000 per inmate), a 16% increase from 2007. In fact, during the five-year study, Maine was one of a few states whose spending on prisoner health care continued to increase.

Despite this considerable investment, many Maine prisoners are still not getting the care they need. This past February, the ACLU of Maine co-authored a letter with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, the NAACP – Portland Branch and the Maine Council of Churches requesting a review by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability of the health care services being provided in Maine state prisons. Of the 310 prisoners with serious unresolved health issues listed in our letter, 58% of them were over the age of 50.

The Eight Amendment of the Constitution guarantees all prisoners a right to health care while incarcerated and protects them again indifference to their serious medical needs. However, prison are not built to accommodate an aging populace and there are serious challenges and costs associated to providing adequate care within the prison settings. While we cannot erase the 40 years of extreme sentencing and unfair and unjust criminal justice policy, there are steps we can take to reform the system both in the short and long term. First, we can expand the use of compassionate release and medical furlough programs.  Research shows that by age 50 the likelihood a prisoner will recidivate drops significantly. Arrest rate at age 50 drop to just over 2% and are almost 0% for those over the age of 65. Second, we can proactively reform the extreme sentencing policies that came out of the tough-on-crime era, shortening the time prisoners spend incarcerated and recalibrating our justice system to be both more fair and effective.

To read more about the challenges of an aging prisoner population and the ACLU’s recommendations for reform check out our report At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.