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Aging inmates put strain on state budget

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ANGOLA - Old age is creating a big financial problem at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Stuck in bed, hooked up to oxygen and dependent on others to get things like diaper changes, the men inside Angola's hospice unit try to keep their dignity. All are convicts serving time for things like murders, rapes and armed robberies. They will likely die in this room.

Darrell Gerstenschologer has spent more than four decades at Angola, and now lives in hospice.

"I have cancer," Gerstenschologer said. "Advanced stage cancer."

Gerstenschologer remembers his crime and acknowledges he deserves to be here. He came here in the 70's and is serving a life sentence.

"First degree murder sir, I shot my wife," Gerstenschologer said.

Gerstenschologer is among the prison's 6,000 inmates. Nearly one third are over the age of 55, and their old age means a lot of medical expenses.

Mike Smith is a hospice volunteer who's also serving time for murder. He said he volunteers because he knows one day he might end up like Gerstenschologer.

"I have a better outlook of life, period," Smith said. "I understand being a hospice volunteer, I've been able to see men take their last breath."

The aging prison population led to the creation of a handicap-accessible nursing unit which now houses nearly 50 geriatric inmates in wheelchairs. The growing number of these prisoners who can't do manual labor anymore is a problem at Angola, which sits on nearly 26 miles of the richest farmland in the state and grows food for four other prisons in southern Louisiana. Lines of workers heading to the field today are half the length they were ten years ago.

"It's not going to get better," Hospice Director Tonia Faust said.

Currently there are 18 inmates in the hospice unit. Countless more are unable to work because of their age or physical weakness.

As inmates continue to age, their birthdays continue to put a burden on prisons, the state, and the taxpayers who must foot the bill for their care. 

"I know the numbers will increase," Faust said. "We're seeing numbers of cancers, terminal illness occurring and we have limited area for elderly patients."

The aging of inmates has become such an issue, prison leaders are getting creative with how they deal with the situation. Thursday night at 10, News 2's Chris Nakamoto will detail just how much sick inmates are costing taxpayers and what's being done to address the situation.

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