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Elderly inmates are the costliest state prisoners

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ At age 83, wheelchair-bound Trittichuh Hicks is one of nearly 1,200 Oklahoma prisoners older than 55. Elderly inmates are the costliest prisoners, and experts expect an increasing number will grow old behind bars.

Hicks, serving 12 years for molestation, is up for release in 2010. He'll be 88.

In Oklahoma, inmate medical care costs twice as much as food and five times as much as utilities, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Oklahoma spent $25-million on medical expenses in fiscal year 2005, and older inmates contribute to that, said Dr. Mike Jackson, deputy director of medical services for the Oklahoma Corrections Department.

The last years of life are the most expensive, and more Oklahoma offenders will spend their last years in prison because of tougher sentencing laws, such as truth-in-sentencing, a requirement that violent and repeat criminals serve 85 percent of their sentence. More than 760 inmates are now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

``That's really in the front of our planning process in a lot of ways,'' Jackson said. ``We're going to have a group of people who are sentenced basically to die in prison.''

As the prison population ages, corrections officials prepare for higher medical costs and more special-needs inmates who need to live in special living quarters or require the help of other inmates to function.

Billie Garner, 74, began serving a life sentence for murder in 1970. Since then, he has battled cancer, a stroke, heart ailments and high blood pressure. He carries piles of prescription drugs in a small red cooler and takes 25 pills a day, costing taxpayers about $2,000 a month, he said.

He said he thinks tougher sentencing laws will mean higher medical bills for Oklahoma taxpayers.

``It'll get a lot more expensive,'' he said. ``You can believe that.''

While age affects how medical administrators and financial planners dole out funding, it isn't always a factor for prosecutors, said Richard Gray, district attorney for Adair, Cherokee, Sequoyah and Wagoner counties.

``Age for us wouldn't make any difference,'' Gray said. ``It may be a small factor, but it's not a determining factor.''

Last year, about 130 people age 65 and older were convicted of felonies, according to the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center. A third went to prison. The most common crimes were driving under the influence, lewd acts with a child and drug distribution.

Gray said old age also shouldn't determine if an inmate is released early. Some senior citizen criminals are still dangerous and able to re-offend.

But long sentences for older offenders isn't always the answer, said Lynn Powell, president of Oklahoma CURE, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants.

Powell said she hopes legislators and judicial officials will be more willing to offer alternative sentencing, such as house arrest.

``Put an electronic monitor on them,'' she said. ``There's an awful lot of lifers in there I think would never commit another crime.''

Architecture plans are complete for a new handicapped- accessible unit at Joseph Harp Correctional Center. The $4.4 million unit _ the only one like it in Oklahoma _ will have about 250 beds and five medical staffers, Jackson said. Inmates transferred to the new unit will be those who are able to transfer from other prisons and in need of more accessible surroundings. Jackson said he expects most will be elderly.
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