Oregon’s Prison Population Is Aging, Fast

It’s going to cost the state a lot of money.

Oregon’s prison population is continuing to get older at an “alarming rate,” state officials told legislators early this week.

The state already had one of the oldest prisoner populations in the country, according to a widely cited study of 2015 data. At the time, 12.6% of inmates were over 55 years old.

Only eight years later that number has risen to 17.4%—a startling rise partly driven by Measure 11, Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing law passed in 1994.

The federal government hasn’t released an updated national ranking in recent years, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections. “I don’t know if we’re No. 1 now, but I wouldn’t be surprised,” said ODOC deputy director Heidi Steward.

In January, WW wrote about one of those aging prisoners, Robert King. The 72-year-old has been held behind bars for nearly four decades for a series of murders in the 1980s. The parole board says he’s rehabilitated, against the vocal protests of King’s victims, and is now considering his release.

The head of that board, Dylan Arthur, told WW at the time that research shows aging prisoners are less likely to commit new crimes. Steward echoed that sentiment when queried by legislators this week.

Meanwhile, aging prisoners’ health care costs the state a lot of money. Because national health insurance programs don’t generally pay for prisoner health care, Oregon taxpayers carry the burden.

By 2032, it’ll cost the state $47 million a year, according to the ODOC presentation. “The prisons we have today will not meet the needs of this population moving into the future,” Steward said.

On Tuesday, the department’s head of health services, Joe Bugher, called the rise “alarming” and noted that some of the state’s prisons don’t have health services available on the first floor and that many cell doors aren’t wide enough for wheelchairs or walkers.

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