CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Over the past decade, Rhode Island’s prison population has shrunk significantly but the percentage of older inmates has gone the other way, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.
The 2018 DOC Population Report indicates about one out of four of the Adult Correctional Institutions’ (ACI) 2,748 inmates in 2018 were over the age of 50, with more than 7 percent over 60.
Ten years ago, with the population at 3,773, according to the 2009 population report, about 17 percent was over 50 and 5 percent was over 60.
DOC spokesman J.R. Ventura said there are 40 sentenced inmates over 70, including six over 80. Five others over 70 are awaiting trial including the ACI’s oldest occupant: 88-year-old Francisco Medina, who’s charged with first- degree child molestation.
Due to a number of elements associated with incarceration, the impact on the aging process has prompted the Department of Corrections (DOC) to categorize inmates 50 and older as geriatric.
Dr. Jennifer Clarke, the DOC’s medical program director, said neither the growing geriatric population nor the increased cost of caring for them has been a surprise.
“It’s definitely more expensive,” Clarke said. “We knew it was going to come.”
Ventura said the additional costs of housing the geriatric population is not tracked.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, the additional costs connected to older inmates total more than $16 billion a year across the country.
The DOC would not allow Target 12 beyond the razor wire but we’re told changes have been made to help the aging population, including adding support bars to bathrooms, showers and other areas.
Also, the number of prisoners with medical conditions associated with aging is up, and 16 inmates require wheelchairs to move around the facility.
Richard Ferruccio, president of the correctional officers union, said the sickest, most feeble elderly are held in medium security.
“We have inmates that are in wheelchairs,” he said. “They’ll come to med lines. They create a little bit of a backup when we’re feeding in the dining room because we only have so many tables available for the guys in wheelchairs.”
Another debate involves how to handle releasing older inmates with medical conditions and limited employment potential.
Many nursing homes will not accept seniors with records, prompting some states including Connecticut to contract with long-term care facilities for old ex-cons.
Clarke said the ACI is now serving a heart-healthy diet and trying to prevent diseases so the population is healthier, less expensive to care for and in better shape when they leave the facility.
“We really are trying to be proactive in prevention,” she said.
The aging prison population is being watched closely by a number of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Data compiled by the ACLU projects the number of elderly inmates to triple in the next 15 years.
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, said everyone “should be concerned as taxpayers.”
“You have a lot of people aging out, just staying in there, people who would not be there earlier based on the [old] sentencing structure,” Brown said. “All it’s doing is bleeding the taxpayer as you keep these people in prison unnecessarily.”
In other states, there are calls for “compassionate release” of older inmates.
Ferruccio, who said the older population tends to follow the ACI’s rules better than younger inmates, expressed some concern about early release.
“I think the fine line is: ‘do we want to let a guy out because he’s 70?'” Ferruccio said. “We’ve seen that situation where we’ve let out some senior inmates who commit a violent crime while they’re on the street.”
Ferruccio is referring to Alfred “Freddie” Bishop, who spent 32 years in the ACI for murder. But within a year of his release in 2007 as a senior citizen at the age of 65, he committed another murder during a break-in. (Bishop is one of the four dozen ACI prisoners over 70.)
Brown said the ACLU is not calling for the release of every elderly inmate, but he’s concerned about the logic of keeping certain non-violent offenders locked up into their golden years.
“There’s no reason to believe that they constitute any sort of threat if they’re released,” Brown said. “All you’re doing is costing taxpayers literally hundreds of thousands of dollars.”