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Report: Aging prison population is costing NY taxpayers a fortune

The number of senior citizens behind bars is exploding, costing New York State taxpayers up to $240,000 a year for prisoners with serious medical needs

By Reuven Blau
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The number of senior citizens behind bars is exploding, costing New York State taxpayers up to $240,000 a year for prisoners with serious medical needs, according to a new report Wednesday.

The “national crisis of graying prisons” is due to lengthy sentences, harsh parole requirements, and “society’s approach and response to violence,” said the report by the Osborne Association, a criminal justice reform organization.

The state’s annual cost per prisoner was $69,355 in 2015, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

It costs twice as much to incarcerate people over 50 and in some cases up to five times as much due to medical costs.

“We are paying a fortune to keep people incarcerated who are very different from the people we sent away,” said Osborne CEO Elizabeth Gaynes. “It’s time for us to understand prisons are not nursing homes.”

The added costs come at a time when the overall state prison population has gone down by 17.3% from 2007 to 2016. At the same time, the number of inmates ages 50 and older increased by 46% to more than 10,000 — the highest rate in decades.

Many of the older prisoners have earned higher education degrees while serving their sentences, said Gaynes.

“At some point they are just old folks and shuffling down the hall in prison and costing us a fortune,” she said. “We are spending a lot of money and not utilizing talent.”

The elderly population has a very low recidivism rate, the Osborne report shows.

“Most older people in prison (disproportionately people of color) have already spent decades behind bars, post little or no risk to public safety,” the report says.

The NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision doesn’t keep specific tabs on health related costs tied to older prisoners.

But the prison system’s total health care costs has spiked by 20% to $380 million from 2014 to 2017, according to a report by the state Controller.

In March, Gov. Cuomo proposed changing the parole system to let older prisoners apply for parole if they have served half of their sentences and have ailments. Convicted killers or people serving life without parole would not be eligible.

But that proposal was opposed by the GOP-controlled state Senate and was not included in the final budget.

State Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Queens), chair of the correction committee, has introduced a similar “Geriatric Parole” bill.

The Osborne report also highlights the difficulties many former prisoners face upon release.

That was the case for Ismael Igartua, 57, who was released on May 10, 2016.

He was lucky enough to have a place to live with his wife in Jackson Heights. But finding work was a major challenge even though he earned a master’s degree in sociology while he was in prison.

“People would ask what I did for 29 years,” he recalled. “I got rejected for so many jobs it was insane.”

“I got strong at being rejected,” he added, noting he finally got a job as a case manager at the Doe Fund.

Igartua, who shot a cop in the arm while he was trying to rob a drug dealer in Harlem, is currently working as a counselor for Housing Works Inc.

“It’s a great job,” he said. “I work with men re-entering society.”

©2018 New York Daily News