Texas Prisons: No Place for Old Men

Texas prisons are filling up with the old and the ill — at enormous expense.

  • A 2012 report from the ACLU calculates the average national expense for keeping a prisoner at $34,000 per year — and twice that much, $68,000, for inmates older than 50.
    Photo by Jason Ilagan/www.flickr.com/photos/thepen/
  • The state of Texas operates 109 prisons holding about 148,000 inmates. Some 27,000 of them are over the age of 50.
    Photo by Amy/www.flickr.com/photos/crankyamy/

Benito Alonzo is a short, 140-pound 80-year-old. His quiet-spoken manner, drooping jowls and gray hair, trimmed in a buzz, give him the appearance of a benevolent grandfather, and indeed, he is a grandfather. In thick-framed black eyeglasses, he bears a resemblance to the defanged and aging Henry Kissinger. But Alonzo is neither a celebrity nor a statesman. He’s a convict who has lately grown infirm.

He says he’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer and he’s afflicted with Hepatitis C. For several years he’s been prescribed a drug called Lactulose, which Dr. Owen Murray, chief of medical affairs for the Texas penal system, says “we use for people whose livers are at the end of their lives.” In November, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston told Alonzo’s son in a letter that during a recent medical examination, it also found “evidence of cirrhosis,” an often-fatal ailment.

I talked to Alonzo in December in the waiting room of the Polunsky Unit, near Livingston. That was not the way I wanted to see him: I had wanted to visit his cell, his pod, to observe how he passes his time — to see how he lives. But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) doesn’t allow reporters beyond its visiting rooms, and it forbids taking pictures inside the prisons. For a year I corresponded with Alonzo and a dozen other elderly inmates, querying them about their circumstances. Mail was the only connection we had. When I asked Alonzo, in Spanish, if he thought prison authorities could monitor our conversation in that language, he chuckled and said, “And in Japanese, Arabic or Russian.” We conducted the rest of our chat in English.

Alonzo has been waiting since at least March for the start of a 12-week course of a new liver drug that might keep him alive for years to come. He’s been told that the treatment will cost $94,500. Were he back on the streets, Medicare would pick up the tab. But because federal courts have ruled that states must guarantee the safety and health of their inmates, Texas will have to pay. Alonzo frets that because of the expense, prison bureaucrats will stall the treatment until it’s too late.

The state of Texas operates 109 prisons holding about 148,000 inmates. Some 27,000 of them are, like Alonzo, over the age of 50. They account for about 18 percent of the prison population, and are the fastest-growing demographic group among prisoners. By most estimates, they are also the most expensive to keep under lock and key. According to TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst, the average cost of housing Texas inmates is about $20,000 a year, but medical and end-of-life expenses hike that figure to some $30,000 for elderly inmates. In other jurisdictions, the cost is even higher. A 2012 report from the ACLU calculates the average national expense for keeping a prisoner at $34,000 per year — and twice that much, $68,000, for inmates older than 50.

Both demographic factors and get-tough sentencing have transformed what were once mere penal institutions into hospitals, assisted living centers and nursing homes, too. The University of Texas Medical Branch operates a freestanding hospital in Galveston for TDCJ, which also contracts with UTMB and the Texas Tech medical school to send prisoners to 146 community hospitals. Texas prisons now boast of “respiratory isolation rooms,” “brace and limb services” and hospice facilities in which 90 Texas inmates were eased into eternity last year. More than 300 inmates in Texas prisons use wheelchairs, Dr. Murray says.

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