(WALA) - The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.1 years old: a number that has climbed steadily since The World Bank, an international development firm, began tracking the numbers in 1960.
Not only is the general population getting older, but also the average age of those incarcerated, according to documents released by the state of Florida and the Southern Legislative Conference.
In Florida, aging inmates are those defined as 50 years old or older. While generally 50 years old is not considered elderly in the free world, many in the prison health care community have chosen this as a baseline age because prison life expectancy is shorter than that of free persons.
Alabama defines elderly inmates as those 60 or above.
Health officials in Florida cite a lower life expectancy in inmates because of prior life experiences before entering prison and the hardships of being locked up as the cause of this age marker, according to a report by Florida's Correctional Medical Authority.
According to a report by the SLC, one of the biggest factors impacting life expectancy is the stress of incarceration—especially in the older population.
"The basic stresses or prison life, including anxiety associated with change in environment, isolation and ostracism from family and friends, the prospect of living one's life in confinement and the threat of victimization which disproportionately affects older inmates," play a major role in life expectancy, according to the report.
According to the Florida DOC, a pre-disposition exists in inmates as a whole for shorter lives than the general population.
"Offenders have a shorter average life span because of their risky lifestyle," said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokesperson for the DOC.
These risky lifestyle factors include smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, intravenous drug use, risky sexual behavior and a disregard for healthcare, the SLC report said.
Other factors associated with inmates are their average income level, which also significantly affects the life expectancy of non-inmates. This higher poverty rate means that most inmates were not privy to health insurance or even basic health care as opposed to the general population.
Another problem among inmates is the spread of communicable diseases. According to the Infectious Diseases in Corrections Report, HIV, syphilis, tuberculosis and hepatitis are major problems in prisons throughout the country. At risk more often for these communicable diseases are elderly inmates, because of their age, risky lifestyle factors and the increased rate of victimization among these weaker inmates.
The report claims that little hard data exists to track the spread of these diseases.
Along with terminal communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases such as coronary disease, cancer, respiratory illness and diabetes are also higher among inmates than the general population.
Rackleff said that the Florida DOC provides care to all inmates, including hospice care and offering medical furloughs—or early release programs—to some eligible, terminally-ill inmates.
However she says the number of inmates who actually are approved for this "mercy release" are small-in the single digits. In Alabama, the number of medical furloughs approved in 2010 was only 8 out of 136. Some 30 applicants were denied release, and another 14 applicants died during the review process. Another 23 offenders with serious medical issues were granted early, conditional paroles.
Life is harder on inmates with disabilities, as well. In a system where complete control is essential, providing special and often times less restrictive treatment is a problem.
A 2010 report from the Florida DOC claims that while 41 percent of non-inmates over the age of 65 have at least one disability, that number jumps to 67 percent of incarcerated peoples.
To qualify for special "disability passes" in Florida, an inmate must undergo a review process. Such passes include usage of a wheelchair, inmate assistants or a pass for a bottom bunk. Slightly more than one-third of all passes are issued to inmates over age 50.
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