TDCJ's 10 Most Terminally Ill Inmates Cost $2 Million a Year to Treat

Jailed offenders with terminal illnesses have a price tag, and the 10 costliest inmates in the state's prison's system totaled almost $2 million in health care costs in 2011.

That's a figure quoted by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who tracks such topics as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. His office provided Hair Balls with the list, which was compiled by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

That information can't link illnesses to a specific offender, but the one-page list of TDCJ's Top 10 costly causes is a cornucopia of Death's Door: end-stage renal failure, end-stage heart condition; acute myelogenous leukemia; decompensated cirrhosis; and, as might be expected, complications from AIDS.

Whitmire said he had seen sick, even comatose, inmates in beds at the state jail system's Galveston hospital. Spending up to $500,000 a year on an inmate who is incapacitated or terminally ill makes no sense in many situations, especially when they are of no harm to others. They should be paroled to secure care, Whitmire said.

"I think some day, before we take this (sunset) bill to the floor, we ought to deal with those old worn-out expensive inmates who might ought to be in a nursing home, secure setting, rather than in the jail population or the medical setting of TDCJ," Whitmire told his colleagues on the Sunset Commission last week. "The top billing last year was $2 million for a gentleman, if you visit him, he will never leave there."

Moving these high-cost inmates out of the prison system and into private care so that Medicaid could pick up the cost of care is something that requires "grownup discussion," Whitmire said. Sunset staff reviewed the current medical release program, but only as it conformed to the intentions of the legislature.

Legislative intentions, however, have left certain offenders behind bars, even if they are costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. It comes down to politics, Whitmire said. No lawmaker, and rightly so, wants to release a sex offender, even if that person would be in a secured location and of no harm to anyone.

"You'd have to show some leadership and make a tough vote that you might have to explain, 'Yes, I let a sex offender, a child molester, out who was comatose, who was costing us $2 million a year, who will never touch a child again because he can't get out of bed,'" Whitmire said. "That's one reason we're not doing it."

Harris County, as you might expect, gets a gold star in the arena of costly inmates. Not only does the county send the most inmates to Death Row, it also can claim some of the costliest medical care for an offender. The unnamed #1 on the state's list is a 48-year-old inmate from Harris County who was sent to the Stiles Unit for robbery and cost the state $331,651 in medical care last year. The inmate, according to the chart, was eligible for parole, which was denied.

Whitmire wants the discussion of "terminal" parole of certain inmates, but he didn't hold out much hope for progress.

"I think we ought to discuss, in this regard, how we spend our monies," Whitmire said. "Personally, I'd like to take that $2 million and spend it on border security."

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Kimberly Reeves
Contact: Kimberly Reeves