Lake County Council on Aging Blog

Mental Health Services

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Sandy Hook tragedy has opened a dialogue in the US about the need for mental health services, treatment vs. punishment, and the prison system. As our population continues to age, increasingly the prison cells of the United States are filled with old, often sick men and women. The care these aging prisoners receive, while often grossly inadequate, is nonetheless cripplingly expensive. While 50 or 55 may not be old by conventional standards, people age faster behind bars than they do on the outside.

Studies have shown that prisoners in their 50s are on average physiologically 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age. Older prisoners require substantial medical care because of harsh life conditions as well as age. And many older offenders suffer from serious mental illness. One study of a Louisiana prison revealed depression among male prisoners was 50 percent higher than for those living outside. All in all, 54 percent of older prisoners met standards for psychiatric disorders. Many mentally ill prisoners are simply warehoused and fed drugs to keep them under control. Even worse, some are labeled “discipline” problems, and end up in solitary confinement. Two innovative programs are attempting to deal with this problem. One, in Pennsylvania, implemented a law on “compassionate release” in which old, dying prisoners can be released into custody of family or friends—provided the corrections department does not find them to be a security risk and they are equipped with electronic monitoring devices. Or they can be released to a hospital, hospice, or other licensed provider if they have less than one year to live. In Louisiana’s Angola prison, home to 5,000 offenders, there is a hospice, where trained prisoners ease the last days of fellow prisoners by performing tasks such as stroking the heads of the dying, bathing them, dressing them, washing their bedsheets, offering them words of hope on their last breaths and closing their eyes when they die. Let’s hope such innovative ideas are part of the national dialogue on violence and mental health in the weeks and months to come.