Tim Mullaney

Is it a nursing home … or a prison?

That sounds like a shady lawyer trolling for clients, but it’s an urgent question for the residents of Rocky Hill, CT. And it may be a pressing question for communities across the country in the near future.

Last week, about 100 people made the trip from Rocky Hill to the capitol building in Hartford. There, they protested the scheduled March 1 opening of a 95-bed long-term care facility in their hometown — a facility for current prison inmates.

The protesters make a persuasive case. They fear for their property values, and they question why Medicaid should pay for the care of felons released from prison to live out their days in a pleasant town on the Connecticut River. They also fear for their safety, even if the nursing home felons are very infirm or injured. (Keep in mind, prisoners in nursing homes can create immediate jeopardy in part because of their possible connections to healthy no-goodniks.)

Of course, the other side has a case to make, too. Connecticut could save up to $5.5 million by transferring aging prisoners to privately run facilities like the Rocky Hill home operated by iCare Management LLC, the state corrections department says. That’s $5.5 million that could presumably improve the lives of the law-abiding citizens of Rocky Hill and other Connecticut communities in need of support.

Debate over aging prisoners heats up nationally

You may think this is just a local drama. Consider: the rate of incarceration in the U.S. is five times higher than it was in the 1970s, and the prison population is the highest in the world. That statistic comes from last week’s TimeOut Chicago report on the plight of aging prisoners.

As the huge U.S. prison population ages, the questions confronting Rocky Hill, CT, may soon confront Rocky Hill, OH, and Rocky Hill, TN, and Rocky Hill, NJ. Already, 14% of Illinois’ prison population is over 50. These prisoners cost the state between $60,000-$70,000 a year, compared to about $27,000 a year for younger inmates. Policymakers might be forgiven for seeking ways to reduce this pricetag, but it’s hard to come up with a great solution. If you think moving older prisoners to private nursing homes is terrible, consider another alternative being floated: simply release them on parole.

The situation in Rocky Hill is up in the air, with legal actions pending. But whatever happens, a larger debate is already underway and will heat up. This debate involves lots of money and thorny moral questions. It’s important for citizens, public officials and long-term care providers to consider their positions carefully, and now.