Special Report: Dying Behind Bars

By: Beth Shayne Email
By: Beth Shayne Email

In 2006, the state of Michigan's most expensive prisoner was a 77-year-old child predator with renal failure. We the taxpayers spent $800,000 dollars for his treatments.

He was paroled in March and just last month, he died. The care he got behind prison walls is required by the constitution. Prisoners are the only people in the country with a right to tax-payer funded health care.

"It seems like it's almost better to be a prisoner to some people," says Dr. Scott Savage, regional medical director for the Department of Corrections.

It's not, but what it is is expensive.

The DOC spends more than $216 million on healthcare each year on everything from head colds to terminal cancer.

One facility in the Jackson County complex is basically a 120-bed nursing home. The people there are among the systems most expensive.

"An inmate who is over the age of 55 will cost on average 3 times that of someone who is say 20," Dr. Savage explains.

Stats also show a person in prison looks and feels about 11 years old than their actual age. They've lived hard lives and often it shows.

"Many have been indigent, low income, they've lived lives with intravenous drug use," explains Carol Zimmermann from MSU's School of Criminal Justice. "So we're dealing with a population even more needy for healthcare than the population on the street."

In Michigan, they are actually older than in Illinois, or Ohio....both comparable states. More than 20% of our prisoners are over 45. Nationwide, prison populations are grayer as baby boomers age, but this state has an added cost because we've chosen stricter sentences.

"Basically, they are just staying a lot longer," Zimmermann explains.

The rising of healthcare is no secret, and prison healthcare has what both Savage and Zimmermann see as fixed costs that are extra.

"We have to arrange for officer escorts, guards to travel and be with them the entire time," Savage says.

"If we're taking a pill, we have to make sure you've swallowed it--we have to check your mouth," Zimmerman explains. "We're doing all that healthcare inside a secure environment which is very very expensive."

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