The Investigators: Aging inmates, rising costs

TYLER (KYTX) --  At first glance it looks like a typical nursing home. Some men use wheelchairs, others rely on walkers to get around, and they talk about their ailments over a friendly game of dominos.  But, these elderly men are some of Texas' most hardened criminals.

These inmates are housed in the geriatric center, at Huntsville's Estelle Unit.  It's surrounded by a barbed wire fence, like the rest of the prison, but in here the inmates are separated from many of the dangers associated with prison life.

"It provides a safe haven for those offenders that need this type of care, and this type of kind of get them off, away from the general population and being that it is confined with security officers keep a better eye on them. It's just a safer environment for them," Estelle Unit Assist. Warden, Christopher Carter, said.

At the Estelle Unit there are 60 beds in the geriatric center. It's the largest center of its kind in the state of Texas. Inmates range in age from 61 to 86 years old.

86-year-old Stanis Whited from Whitehouse is serving time for two counts of aggravated sexual assault. He is the oldest inmate in the unit and suffers from a slew of medical problems he told The Investigators about.

"Even though I was a heart patient and I have a lot of disabilities, back and all and my knees are bad they need reconstruction medical said so. The next month they were going to start I had a big heart attack," Whited said.

Whited is part of the burgeoning elderly prison population.  A group that needs more frequent and costlier treatments, which the state is required to provide.

"The biggest challenge is with the multiple chronic care issues they come in and out of our hospital Galveston the sub specialty care that they receive, the cost of care that we put out for the offenders who are 50 or older is about 50 percent of the cost," Williams said.

In fact, for each inmate over the age of 55, the state spends $4, 853 a year, on health care. For those under 55, the cost is $795 a year. According to the Correctional Managed Health Care Report older prisoners use health care resources at a rate of more than 6 times higher than younger prisoners.

"The medication alone just with making sure that they are receiving their HIV medications or their oncology medications, we have chemo patients, have radiation patients. They do have a lot of maintenance medication so we are having to make sure that they are taking the medication that they are compliant and that they are getting older dementia sets in so we have a nurse that comes here to medicate them and most of their medications are given at the window," Williams said.

That's why convicted murderer, 70-year-old Fred Durrough, believes frail and elderly prisoners up for parole should be released back to their families. 

"We were violent when we got here, but I'm not violent now," Durrough said.

"They're going to let all these people in here die because they are scared they are going to let somebody go. I understand the public probably agrees with what they're doing but that doesn't make it right," Durrough said.

Durrough has spent 39 years in prison for killing a man during a robbery attempt in San Antonio.  The parole board has denied his release 25 times.

"They ought to change the name instead of parole board, to death panels for old convicts, because that's what they're doing," he said.

Durrough says instead of dying in prison, at your expense, he should be able to die in peace, at home.

It's an idea State Senator John Whitmire agrees with. As the state deals with budget shortfalls, he wants elderly prisoners released early. 

"We don't have the luxury to spend money on old sick and dying inmates. If we want to continue spending millions to house, care for and bury these offenders then OK, but then we won't have money for education, roads and other programs where the money is desperately needed," Whitmire told The Investigators.  

Rusk County District Attorney Mike Jimmerson disagrees with Whitmire's proposal.

"I think the thing to do for him (Whitmire) would be to go to Washington and try to change the law so we don't have to give these people cadillac health care," Jimmerson said. "You're talking about excepting a promise from a criminal."

Jimmerson believes it skirts the justice system.

"I have made my career in a courtroom 17 years and it had always been my position that what those 12 people say is justice. Now we are going to circumvent justice. Why? Because medical costs are expensive?" Jimmerson said.

And then there's this fact. While many of the inmates like Durrough, are serving time for crimes committed when they were much younger, there remains a group of elderly inmates who committed crimes later in life, like Stanis Whited. In a written statement, Texas parole board members told The Investigators, that's the group they worry about.

"Age is one factor, but we do not just focus on the age of each offender.  The numbers indicate that there have been more offenders received at TDCJ in the age group 55 - 60 than any other age group at entry."

So the debate continues.

"I'd rather go outside to an old folks home than go to my family. I don't want to be a burden to them," convicted murderer Clarence Brown said.

"I would like my family to take care of me," convicted murderer, George White, said.

Medical care, that inside these walls, comes at a cost $465 million dollars, to you.




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