A gaunt old man, thick with whiskers and stricken with dementia, writhes under the covers of his bed. Down the hall, doctors monitor elderly diabetics with recently amputated limbs, medicate terminal cancer patients shuffling by with walkers and tether shivering dialysis patients to blood-cleaning machines.
Despite the pacing guards, the handcuffs and the bars on the windows, the geriatric and medical wing at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville looks more like a nursing home than a maximum-security prison.
Prison doctors routinely offer up the oldest and sickest of these inmates for medical parole, a way to get those who are too incapacitated to be a public threat and have just months to live out of medical beds that Texas’ quickly aging prison population needs. They’ve recommended parole for 4,000 such inmates within the last decade. But the state parole board, which makes the final decision on “medically recommended intensive supervision,” has only agreed in a quarter of these cases, leaving the others to die in prison — and on the state’s dime.
Texas’ “geriatric” inmates, classified as those 55 and older, make up just 7.3 percent of Texas’ 160,000-offender prison population. But they account for nearly a third of the system’s hospital costs and make three times as many visits to prison medical departments as younger inmates. Elderly inmates have average annual hospitalization costs of $4,700, compared to $765 for inmates under 55. In total, providing inmate medical care costs the state correctional health care system — already facing hundreds of employee layoffs amid a budget shortfall — nearly half a billion dollars a year.