Getting Rich By Locking Up Grandpa

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ACLU Blog of Rights

Getting Rich By Locking Up Grandpa

Well, that didn’t take long. Within just a few months of Kentucky cutting its ties with the country’s biggest for-profit prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has hit back with its latest sinister scheme to turn tax dollars (and human misery) into shareholder returns.

Here’s the plan: rather than letting one of the company’s prisons in Kentucky sit empty, a CCA ally in Kentucky’s legislature has announced plans to re-fill it by incarcerating the old and infirm.

One might think that prison funding gets allocated based on requests from the people who actually run the prison system. Not so for CCA – the Corrections Department has not reported that it needs extra prison beds for the elderly and ill.  A spokesperson told reporters, “That wasn't an initiative that came from us.” 

So why, then, did CCA pop up in the House version of Kentucky’s proposed budget, which instructs the Corrections Department to sign a contract with CCA to convert one of its prisons into an “an assisted living and/or nursing facility” for elderly prisoners?   Has CCA suddenly decided it really cares about the elderly? Not quite.  It cares about profits, as it always has, and this provision would create a new way for CCA to bolster its bottom line.  If the federal government reimburses the private prison company for its medical expenses through Medicaid, it will convert old people into an attractive revenue stream for CCA.  By recharacterizing this geriatric prison as an “assisted living and/or nursing facility,” CCA can receive the same Medicaid reimbursement as a nursing home or hospital in the community—and be paid a per-diem rate by the Kentucky Corrections Department on top of that.

House Speaker Gregory Stumbo, whose district includes the CCA prison, voiced strong support: “I think it would be an ideal fit here as our prison population ages.”

Really, Speaker Stumbo? Let’s take a second and just consider exactly what public policy interest is served by locking up the elderly. CCA is planning to make a (ton of) buck(s) by locking up prisoners who are too ill and elderly to live without nursing care. How could these people possibly continue to pose a public safety threat that would justify keeping them behind bars? According to a multi-state analysis conducted by the ACLU, many elderly prisoners are serving long sentences for less serious crimes, often because of Three Strikes and other extreme sentencing laws.  In Texas, for example, 65% of prisoners over 50 are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.  Moreover, research has conclusively shown that by age 50 most people have significantly outlived the years in which they are most likely to commit crimes. For example, arrest rates drop to just over 2% at age 50 and are almost 0% at age 65.

What’s more, this new plan will likely be a major waste of tax dollars. Taking care of elderly prisoners is enormously expensive; the ACLU calculated in 2012 that it costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 or older. Even Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has embraced parole reforms to reduce the number of elderly prisoners in that state’s custody.

Because of the higher cost of incarcerating the elderly, private prisons currently tend to prefer younger, healthier prisoners.

But if CCA’s Kentucky gambit succeeds, that calculus could change. By tapping into Medicaid funds, CCA can squeeze a profit from the unnecessary incarceration of people who are elderly, in poor health, and pose little risk to public safety.  And because the cost is borne by the nation as a whole, rather than Kentucky taxpayers alone, the Kentucky legislature will feel little financial pressure to explore smarter choices, like letting elderly prisoners return to their families and nursing homes in the community. 

This is dirty business. But if we share this story and expose what CCA is planning, we have a shot at shutting it down.

Carl Takei

Carl Takei is a Staff Attorney at the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. He litigates prison conditions class action suits in federal court and performs state-based advocacy against overincarceration, including fighting unnecessary jail expansion projects and working to stop modern-day debtors’ prison practices in local courts and jails.

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