Wisconsin elderly inmate population growing quickly

CREATED Jul 15, 2013 - UPDATED: Jul 16, 2013

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OSHKOSH -The number of Wisconsites doing hard time is exploding. In the last 10 years, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections says the number of prisoners over age 50 has gone up a whopping 73 percent.  So what's behind the increase and what's being done to stop it?

Longer sentences, tougher laws for OWI's, and sexual offenses, plus the baby boom, are three big reasons why the elderly inmate population in Wisconsin is swelling out of control. But the D.O.C is involved in efforts right now to fix the problem.

Wheelchairs and walkers line the hallways. Not your typical cell block. It's a wing at Oshkosh Correctional Institution for elderly or handicapped prisoners, one of the fastest growing prison populations in Wisconsin.

More than 900 inmates in Wisconsin are older than 60 out of almost 22,000.  But that number is going up alarmingly fast.

"It's a number we can't get away from so we have to take into consideration what is going to be our ability in the future to handle the population as it goes up," said D.O.C. Secretary Ed Wall.

NBC News: Explodng Number of Elderly Prisioners Strains Tax Payers.

D.O.C leaders say a possible solution is adding a geriatric care facility. But they admit, caring for the aging prisoner now is too expensive.

"Hospitalizations, especially clinic visits, MRI's, CAT scans, all those types of things we can't do internally," said Director of Health Services for the D.O.C., James Greer.

Off-site health care is the biggest expense, with 850 prisoners of all ages in hospitals. The price of medication, not too far behind. A problem the D.O.C. has tackled already, by switching from name-brand to generics.

"We'll spend 14.8 million dollars on pharmaceuticals this year. Four and a half years ago we spent almost 17 million so we really have brought down our expenses," said Greer.

A D.O.C. committee is working on solutions to present to Governor Scott Walker.

"We have a population whose age is going up and we're going to have to address that, and have facilities capable of handling geriatric patients is what this comes down to," said Wall.

A convicted felon, now turned UW Oshkosh professor of criminal justice, Stephen Richards, agrees. He wants a D.O.C. run geriatric hospital.

"Move them to a minimum security camp where there is no fence or wall and where it will more resemble a real hospice," said Richards.

Richards did nine years in prisons around the country on drug charges. He says the D.O.C. should spend less money securing older or sick prisoners to free up money for better prisoner quality of life and pay for items like pain medications, which he says aren't available now.

 "Just imagine being locked in a cell suffering from horrific pain where they give you Tylenol...and watch you die," said Richards.

For the state of Wisconsin, it's a constant balancing act. Keep the cost to taxpayers down and provide the required care. A solution hinges on one element.

"The number one priority has to be the risk to the public," said Wall.

Inmates age 65 and up can request release due to age but they must meet other criteria too.. Number of years served and health condition are just a couple. Their case would go before a judge.

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