Aging Inmates Strain Federal Prisons, U.S. Justice Report Says

An aging population of inmates is straining a federal prison system that lacks the resources, staffing and facilities to address its rapidly changing demographics, a U.S. government watchdog reported on Wednesday.

Inmates 50 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, increasing by more than 6,000, or 25 percent, from 2009 to 2013, while the number of younger inmates dropped by 1 percent, according to the report by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Older inmates account for about 31,000 of the 164,600 inmates who were in the Bureau of Prisons’ custody as of September 2013.

The report found that older prisoners are more expensive to detain, costing $24,538 annually, about $2,000 more than their younger counterparts. It also concluded that the Bureau of Prisons doesn’t have the staff or training to address the needs of aging inmates, and prisons don’t provide the proper programs for them.

Though older prisoners have the lowest recidivism rates, the report said, federal prison officials limit the number of aging inmates who can be considered for early release.

The growing population of such prisoners has adversely affected the system’s “ability to provide a safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure environment for aging inmates and to assist aging inmates reentering the community,” the report found.

The inspector general recommended that prison officials improve oversight and training of staff, study the effects of the aging population on its facilities, and develop programs to assist them during their detention and prepare them for release.

The Bureau of Prisons agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations, the report said.

The Justice Department spends a sizable portion of its $26 billion budget -- about 30 percent -- on detention and its prisoners. Under pressure to ease that financial and human burden, officials and lawmakers are seeking ways to decrease the inmate population by steering more drug offenders into treatment and other programs while reducing sentences for non-violent criminals.

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