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U.S. Prisons Not Safe for the Aged: Study

Changes must be made as jailed population grows older, experts say

MONDAY, March 20, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Incarcerated Americans are a graying population, and a new study suggests that U.S. prisons need to meet the challenge of caring for older prisoners.

"Prison is not a safe place for vulnerable older people to be," study author Dr. Brie Williams, a geriatrician at San Francisco VA Medical Center, said in a prepared statement. "Prisons aren't geared to the needs and vulnerabilities of older people. In the prison environment, there are a number of unique physical tasks that must be performed every day in order to retain independence. They're not the same tasks that are called for in the community."

Williams' group analyzed questionnaires filled out by 120 female prisoners, aged 55 and older, in the California prison system and found that 69 percent of the women reported that they had great difficulty performing at least one daily living activity in prison such as climbing onto a top bunk, hearing orders from correctional officers, standing in line to be counted, walking to the dining hall, or dropping to the floor rapidly when an alarm goes off.

Sixteen percent of the survey respondents reported that they needed help with one or more daily activity. That's twice the rate of the general U.S. population aged 65 and older. In addition, 51 percent of the respondents reported falling within the previous year.

The inmates were also less healthy than the general population. They reported significantly higher rates of high blood pressure, arthritis, and asthma or other lung diseases.

The study appears in the early online issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, and will appear in the April print issue.

Williams noted that the number of older prisoners in the United States is increasing rapidly and that by 2030, about a third of the U.S. prison population will be geriatric.

Specific measures could help older inmates, she said.

"Every prisoner over 55 and over should be assigned to a bottom bunk unless the person specifically requests otherwise, and should be in a cell with grab bars near the toilets. They should be housed closer to the dining hall, and given more time to drop to the floor during alarms. There should be grab bars in showers, and rubber mats on shower floors," said Williams, who is also a fellow in aging research at the University of California, San Francisco.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians outlines good health habits for older adults.

SOURCE: University of California, San Francisco, news release, March 13, 2006
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