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Aging inmates cost taxpayers millions

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ANGOLA - Old inmates who can't work are costing you thousands of dollars each year. The problem is so bad at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that prison leaders have come up with creative ways to try to cut its costs.

When you think of inmates in prison, you usually picture a day behind bars. Angola is also a working prison, though; each day many inmates spend time cultivating crops, performing maintenance and other kinds of manual labor. When they can't work, taxpayers feel the pinch.

News 2 cameras captured prison camps full of convicts sentenced to life in nursing units. The group of ill inmates is terminal, with signed "do not resuscitate" orders because they have non-curable diseases.

"It's just like the private sector," said Dr. Randy Lavespere. "As you get older your medical needs increase. Certainly we have a large majority that have medical needs."

Dr. Lavespere is familiar with Angola's rising medical costs. According to figures provided to the News 2 Investigative Unit by Angola prison leaders, it costs about $35,000-$40,000 to house a healthy inmate each year.

As they age and get sick, the state forks out more than $100,000 on average for each infirm inmate. Currently there are more than a 100 inmates at Angola who have medical costs that exceed $100,000 per year.

The amount of care the prisoners need is evident when you look at the hospice and nursing wings of the prison, where more than 60 sick prisoners currently stay.

"It can get expensive," Dr. Lavespere said. "We have to be cautious about how we spend our money. We have to be cautious about hospital trips that go out, so we do most of our care, as much as we can, in-house."

That includes using prisoners in the hospice unit to tend to the dying, doing everything from providing basic needs to changing diapers. Mike Smith is one of the hospice unit volunteers.

"I really thank God for allowing us to take care of one another in this situation," Smith said.

Several years ago the prison was so short on manpower to help harvest crops on the prison's 26-square miles of farm land, prison leaders made the call to bus in prisoners from other state-run facilities to help pick the 5 million pounds of vegetables Angola produces each year.

As inmates grow older, the problem won't get easier, and the pinch it puts on the state's taxpayers will grow.

"This is an issue we are keeping our eye on," Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot told News 2.

Nationally, Angola has been commended and used as a model for how the sick are cared for. Over the past few years, prison leaders from a dozen states toured Angola and brought back what they learned to their respective states.

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