As number of elderly prisoners grows, prison system creaks under burden of rising health care costs

aging in prison

George Hall, 79, sits in his room on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014, at the Lakeland Men’s Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan.
Tim Galloway for Al Jazeera America

COLDWATER, Mich. — It’s time for George Hall to come to the conference room, so he puts down his headphones and pivots his wheelchair away from the Brothers word processor he’s been using all morning to work on a friend’s legal brief. He navigates out of his room and into the antiseptic corridors, emitting a few coughs from chronic bronchitis. That’s the least of his health woes; he’s recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer and can’t walk, because of inoperable herniated lumbar discs in his back.

As Hall, who is 79, rolls through the halls with an attendant alongside him, he hears the soft cacophony of a typical nursing home. The clanking of walkers echoes somewhere in the distance. A man curled up in a bed lets out a loud snore. A group of friends erupt in occasional laughter as they play gin rummy in a rec room where one television blares the news and another a black-and-white Cary Grant movie. Some of the men propped before one of the TVs are slumped over, drifting in and out of consciousness.

This is a nursing home, yes. But it’s also a prison. Specifically, it’s the A Building of the 16-building campus that makes up the Lakeland Correctional Facility in rural southern Michigan, an all-male prison about 20 minutes from the Indiana border. There are 96 beds in the A Building, also known as the state prison system’s geriatric ward, a stretch of four-to-a-room “cells” that looks more like a dormitory in which the doors are rarely locked. They are all occupied by senior inmates struggling against the typical litany of health challenges facing men of a certain age. And for each man living here, another seven over age 60 molder in a more traditional prison setting around the state.


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