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New Report Highlights North Carolina’s “Geriatric Death Row”

According to a recent report from The Intercept, nearly two-thirds of the 135 people on death row in North Carolina are over the age of 50, which the state defines as “elderly”. Based on current trends, within the next 10 years, approximately 90 percent of people on death row will be considered elderly. In many ways, North Carolina’s death row is transforming into an informal geriatric unit, which this report claims may be unprepared to care for its aging population. In addition to this population suffering from chronic diseases and conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and hepatitis C, The Intercept’s report states that North Carolina’s correctional institutions are:

“Marred by chronic understaffing; a slow, and sometimes ignored, sick-call process; a copay system that discourages people from seeking care; a utilization management program that must approve requests for specialized medical care; and the stalled implementation of a caretaker program that would teach incarcerated people how to effectively provide palliative care to their peers, the looming geriatric health crisis on North Carolina’s death row provides a stark and dire warning for what lies ahead, especially when it comes to the economic and societal costs of incarcerating older people.”

The increase in North Carolina’s elderly inmate population is a direct result of the tough-on-crime laws adopted across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2006, The NCDPS published a report called the “Aging Inmate Population Study”, with the objective of helping DPS plan for the inevitable increase in the number of older people incarcerated and the rising costs associated with their incarceration. Their report included a list of recommendations, which ranged from releasing terminally ill, geriatric, and “severely disabled” people to hospice care or private facilities, to tracking health care expenditures by age and type. However, despite some efforts by the state, the number of older incarcerated people and the costs associated with caring for them have continued to rise. According to a 2018 report to the North Carolina Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, it cost the state an estimated $27,748 more per person annually to care for an elderly person as compared with their younger peers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. NCDPS has seen an increase in vacancies in their already limited medical staff, and older incarcerated people on death row say they are now facing structural obstacles in getting basic care. Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says this limited access to medical care will likely lead to suffering or premature death for many people on death row. Baumgartner states, “Our options are either paying for the kind of medical care that people deserve just as a human right or warehouse people until they die of old age after terrible suffering, forgotten, thrown away in a box without adequate medical care.”

Read the full report here: The Health Care Crisis on North Carolina’s Death Row (

Researched by Crystal Poole, NC-CURE Intern

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