MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A Massachusetts state prison is expanding the graveyard where it buries inmates who die in custody. The number of state inmates over the age of 55 in prisons across the U.S. has quadrupled since the 1990s. The most recent Justice Department reports show this is largely due to longer prison sentences for violent crimes and an uptick in people over 55 being sent to prison. As more inmates age and die behind bars, it is costing taxpayers a premium. Chris Burrell from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting starts this story at a prison cemetery north of Worcester, Mass.
CHRIS BURRELL, BYLINE: In a clearing in the woods, gunfire rings out from a nearby firing range over the hillside.
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BURRELL: The most jarring thing about this prison cemetery isn't the gunshots but the grave markers, crosses made out of white plastic plumbing pipe - no names, only numbers. Some 90 men are buried here. And with one of the highest percentages of aging prisoners in the nation, Massachusetts is making room for more.
KERRY KEEFE: Very humble. You know, it's nothing much.
BURRELL: That's Kerry Keefe, the director of treatment at the state prison. He's also in charge of burying prisoners whose bodies go unclaimed by family, about three or four a year.
KEEFE: This isn't a bad place to spend eternity, but I think you'd want someone at least to cry for you.
BURRELL: A local funeral home charges the prison a thousand dollars per burial. But a new law in Massachusetts passed in April could spare the state that small cost and millions of dollars more spent caring for the oldest and sickest of inmates. It's called medical parole. All but four states in the U.S. have such a provision also known as compassionate release. But it's rarely used. In Massachusetts, the parole is an option only for prisoners who can prove they are physically or cognitively incapacitated. But even Kerry Keefe isn't so sure that murderers should get that chance.
KEEFE: It kind of saves money. It's fairly obvious the person can't do any, you know, kind of serious destructive behavior. But you've got to pay attention and temper it with the demands of justice.
BURRELL: Pushback is also coming from the state's Republican governor, who doesn't want to see some sex offenders or first-degree murderers released. And the governor's appointee, the head of state prisons, decides who gets out.
ELIZABETH LOUDER: Yes, sir, you're getting closer. You're almost to your room.
BURRELL: In a state prison in Massachusetts, social worker Elizabeth Louder watches over a special assisted living and nursing unit for inmates like this 82-year-old prisoner shuffling down a hallway. Around Louder, many of the 38 men locked up here are slumped in chairs.
LOUDER: May be post-stroke or incomplete quadriplegia that just require our full care - dressing, changing and diapering. And then we have patients who suffer from dementia. They are just confused.
BURRELL: Massachusetts doesn't track the cost of caring for these inmates, but its prison hospital spends more than $283,000 a year to care for a sick inmate, four times the cost of housing an inmate in its maximum security prison. Studies by Pew Charitable Trusts found that older prisoners with chronic illnesses cost at least two times more than other inmates. When prisoners need specialty care in offsite hospitals, officers go along to guard them.
JOE LABRIOLA: Two - two guards. They have one sitting at the door with a gun, and the other one sits right next to your bed. And your leg is chained to the bed.
BURRELL: That's 71-year-old Joe Labriola, who's been in prison 4 1/2 decades serving life without parole for murdering an alleged drug dealer, a crime he says he didn't do. Labriola's health problems include chronic lung disease that he blames on exposure to Agent Orange when he was a soldier in Vietnam. He now gets around in a wheelchair pushed by a younger inmate. More than anything, he doesn't want to die behind bars.
LABRIOLA: Dying in prison has a special aura to it. You're not surrounded by people who love you. There's - nobody's going to hold your hand on the way out the door.
BURRELL: Peter Koutoujian, a county sheriff in Massachusetts, is adamant about a solution for the worst-off inmates. He says let them go.
PETER KOUTOUJIAN: If you're terminally ill or you're medically incapacitated, you shouldn't have to be in a jail, number one, and you don't need to be in a jail, number two.
BURRELL: One big question left hanging is where they'd go and who'd pay for their care. In many cases, backers say federally funded Medicaid or Medicare would cover costs. Pat Jehlen, the state senator who helped write the medical parole law, says some local hospice organizations are willing to take in prisoners.
PAT JEHLEN: It's going to allow people to die in a little more humane circumstances. The growing number of incapacitated elderly prisoners who are extremely expensive and hard to care for could be cared for in a much less expensive environment.
BURRELL: But in Massachusetts, getting one of these sick or dying prisoners released under the new parole law could be tough. The state just rejected the first petition for medical parole from an inmate with pancreatic cancer. For NPR News, I'm Chris Burrell.
KELLY: And that story comes to us from member station WGBH in Boston.
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