Oklahoma CURE

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Oklahoma lawmakers study impact of aging inmates

Nov 2, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

While some at the interim study they were stating Life means Life. OK-CURE stood up to speak that Life means Life with the possibility of parole and there were a lot of those that had earn that chance and that if needed use GPS. There are hundreds of inmates that have gone 15 to 20 years without a write up.

By Graham Lee Brewer October 28, 2014

The number of elderly inmates in Oklahoma is more than 50 times what it was three decades ago, and alternatives to incarceration for them are few, said speakers at a Tuesday interim study.

The Senate Public Safety Committee heard from prisoner advocates, re-entry experts and state Corrections Department officials as they discussed the impact of aging prisoners on the state’s strained prison system.

According to state data, nearly 5,000 of the state’s more than 28,000 inmates are 50 or older. While the Department of Corrections does not keep data showing how much more older inmates cost to house, officials acknowledge their costs begin to double as they age. Health care expenses in the state prison system have steadily increased, totaling $59.4 million in 2012, compared to $34.2 million in 2000.

“There is a pressure in Oklahoma for offenders to not be released and for us to put people in jail and keep them there for extended periods of time,” said Marc Dreyer, chairman of the state Pardon and Parole Board.

State law requires that for an inmate to be eligible for a medical parole they must either have a life expectancy of one year or less or be considered no longer a public threat. Dreyer said not only can those requirements be hard to define or too rigid, even paroling an elderly inmate with a fatal condition is often seen by the public as too lenient.

“That is just absolutely bogus,” Dreyer said. “Being considerate and compassionate and seeing somebody that has remediated their life is not being ‘soft on crime,’ it’s being good on people of the state of Oklahoma.”

The state Pardon and Parole Board grants about two medical paroles a month, out of hundreds of requests. The board’s hands are further tied by a 2013 law that removed its power to commute consecutive sentences, requiring that at least one third of such sentences be served behind bars. That law prohibits the board from paroling many older inmates who have served decades behind bars due to multiple charges.

Parole not sought

Many elderly inmates choose not to seek parole, instead opting to spend as long as possible in prison, said Steve Gordon, who owns a re-entry program that focuses on the elderly. Those offenders often have no family to take care of them, no housing options, or inadequate health care and decide to stay behind bars.

“If you are elderly and released in Oklahoma there is nowhere for you to go. You are homeless on the street, living under a bridge,” Gordon said.

State corrections officials said they have reached out to a private nursing home contractor to help find a reliable source of beds for elderly inmates after their release, but could not comment on specific aspects of the proposed agreement, such as whether or not ex-offenders would live with private residents. A spokeswoman for the state’s Long-term Care Ombudsman said their office does have concerns about Oklahomans in nursing homes being victimized by former offenders.

Dreyer said many of the older inmates the board considers for parole are not ready to re-enter society because they were never able to participate in recommended treatment or education programs due to a lack of department resources.

28,000 inmates

Earlier this month, the state’s prison population surpassed 28,000 for the first time. Staffing levels in the state’s prisons remain around 60 percent.

Reforming law to help older inmates cycle out of the system and not re-offend is vital to addressing the state’s prison woes, said Sean Wallace, director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, a group that represents corrections employees.

“We have a huge problem in Oklahoma right now, and I think we have to do something,” Wallace said. “This is a good start, but it’s only a start.”

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