Minnesota by the numbers: Our aging prison inmates

class=img_thumbleft>As the

New York Times reported Sunday

, Minnesota--like the great majority of states--has experienced a dramatic spike in the number of prisoners serving life sentences. Between 1993 and 2004, according to the Times, the number of lifers in Minnesota jumped by 103 percent--a figure that dwarfs those found in neighboring states such as Wisconsin (67 percent) and Iowa (55 percent). In fact, only six states surveyed saw bigger increases as measured by percentage. The leader of the pack is Idaho, where there was an astonishing 552 percent leap.

There are several explanations for Minnesota's particular status. To begin with, Minnesota is a low incarceration state; on a per capita basis, only Maine puts fewer people behind bars. So as a consequence, even a relatively small number of additional life sentences makes for a bigger leap in terms of percentage of lifers.

Still, it's clear that change is coming.

Of the approximately 8,700 inmates in Minnesota prisons, 397 are serving life sentences. As of July, 86 of Minnesota's lifers were over age 50.

To the general public, 50 may not seem old. But prisoners typically age much faster than the rest of us. "A 50 year old person in prison is going to look a lot worse from a health status than people in the general population," observes Nanette Schroeder, director of health services for the DOC. "We're dealing with a lot of people who have a propensity to not take care of themselves, and to abuse their bodies."

And of course true lifers aren't the only inmates who are graying behind bars. In the past five years alone, according to the DOC, the overall number of inmates over age 50 has increased from 416 to 703.

From a public policy point of view, the shifting demographics has several implications. Most obviously, there is the question as to whether or not there is an overall social benefit to incarcerating people who are probably well beyond their crime prone years. But aside from that issue, there is another significant question: How to care for an aging and increasingly infirm population of inmates?

The answer: build a geriatric prison facility. If the DOC has its way, that's precisely what will happen in the coming years. In the DOC's proposed 2006 capital budget, in fact, the top priority is a $41 million expansion of the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Faribault. As part of that expansion, the DOC hopes to convert the 100-bed Linden Wing of the facility--which was a former state hospital--into the functional equivalent of a barred-nursing home. In other words, a prison equipped with handicap-accessible toilets, showers and beds.

Will those 100 nursing home-style beds be adequate to serve the state's needs in the future? In large part, that will depend on whether the legislature decides that the public is best served by continuing to incarcerate people who can't go to the bathroom without assistance.

If current trends continue unabated, it's a fair bet that the Linden Wing expansion--at an estimated cost of $3.5 million--will be a mere prelude. Over the past two decades, according to DOC spokeswoman Liz McClung, the legislature has enacted approximately 100 "sentencing enhancements" and dramatically limited inmates prospects for early release. In the last five years alone, as lawmakers have rushed to stiffen penalties for sex and meth offenses, there has been a 45 percent increase in prison population.

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