- By Laura A. Bischoff Columbus Bureau
Tough-on-crime sentencing laws helped keep criminals like Arthur Schnipper Jr. behind bars for long periods, but as Ohio’s prison population gets older, the state is getting a taste of how expensive caring for frail inmates can be.
Ohio earmarked $150 million as part of a master plan that will add 290 medical beds to the Franklin Medical Center — an acute and long-term care prison hospital in Columbus — and convert a shuttered prison in Pickaway County into a geriatric facility that will house 1,168 inmates ages 50 or older.
“That will take the state long into the future,” said Stuart Hudson, managing director of fiscal and health care operations for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “It’s a large investment now, but if we don’t do it now it’ll be a larger cost later.”
“There are well over 7,000 people serving life sentences,” Hudson said. “Those are going to become patients eventually.”
Schnipper was Ohio’s oldest inmate when he died July 8 at age 94. He represents the dilemma Ohio faces as it wrestles with the challenges and costs of an aging prison population. While many inmates are elderly and in some cases extremely frail, they elicit little sympathy from Ohioans because of what they once did.
Around 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 6, 1982, Schnipper, then 58, donned a wig, a fake mustache and an Air Force uniform, walked through the backdoor of Jimmy’s Lounge on North Main Street in Dayton and unloaded eight rounds from his .380 Barretta into his estranged girlfriend, Margaret Kay Thomas.
According to a barmaid, Thomas’ last words were, “Oh, my God, I’m dead.” Thomas then died on the barroom floor.
A jury convicted Schnipper in the murder, and he spent the rest of his life — 35 years — in prison. He was denied parole three times.
Across the nation, a higher percentage of prisoners are reaching an age where their health care and other costs escalate.
“From 1999 to 2016, the number of people 55 or older in state and federal prisons increased 280 percent,” according to a report from the Pew Trusts. “During the same period, the number of younger adults grew merely 3 percent. As a result, older inmates swelled from 3 percent of the total prison population to 11 percent.”
In Ohio, roughly 20 percent of DRC inmates are 50 or older, compared with about 12 percent a decade ago. Nine inmates are age 88 or older.
Older inmates require more health care, facilities need to be adapted with wider doors for wheelchairs and officers need additional training on protecting elderly prisoners.
Ohio’s tab for prison medical care had been declining but is now on the rise. The state spent $192.69 million on prison medical care in fiscal year 2017, up from $176.3 million and $172.4 million in the two previous years.
A 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made clear that all prisoners must have timely, appropriate medical care. Failure to meet this standard can lead to costly litigation for the state.
Warden: ‘It’s about being humane’
Prisoners tend to suffer from complex medical conditions. Minor issues are addressed at prison infirmaries while surgeries, baby deliveries and other major problems are handled at area hospitals, especially Ohio State Medical Center, where where DRC has a dedicated, secure area.
The corrections department also runs Franklin Medical Center, which will soon be expanded to accommodate the increasing number of prisoners needing acute and long-term care.
In many ways the third floor at FMC looks like any hospital: nurses station, monitoring equipment, food carts. But there are uniformed guards standing by and the man delivering dinner is wearing a khaki uniform with ‘DRC Inmate’ emblazoned on his back.
Inside the rooms, patients are recovering from hip fractures, receiving intravenous antibiotics, suffering from end-stage liver disease or dealing with a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Corrections Officer Tamitri Rogers said working in a prison hospital is completely different than working in a prison. “Here you learn to serve your customers with respect and empathy,” Rogers said. “It’s not so much control, control, control.”
The FMC applies compassionate touches: bedside visits for those patients who have visitors; visits on Tuesdays by the ‘Threshold Choir’ members who sing spiritual hymns to patients; and trained inmates who hold round-the-clock vigils when a patient is near death — “just so a person doesn’t have to die alone,” said FMC Warden Rhonda Richard.
Richard has a ready answer for those who say killers, child molesters and other violent felons don’t deserve such compassion.
“We are in the business of rehabilitation and honestly, it’s about being humane,” she said.
Simply moving elderly, frail inmates out of prison isn’t always easy.
In late 2011, Ohio lawmakers required the parole board to evaluate all 347 parole-eligible inmates aged 65 and older for possible expedited release, but none were fast-tracked. In a report, the board said the convicts remained dangerous, failed to complete rehabilitative programming or show remorse, had previously violated parole, or committed crimes so vile that it would be an injustice to let them out of prison.
Schnipper was among those rejected for fast-tracking.
“Strong opposition to his release was received by interested parties and the community,” the board reported.
The oldest inmate now in the DRC system is Roy Schrock, 93, who has been in state prison since June 1989. Convicted of 22 counts of rape, 11 counts of kidnapping and 11 counts of gross sexual imposition, Schrock will no doubt die in prison.
His first parole hearing is scheduled for December 2234.
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