Taxpayers face an increasing medical bill for prisoners as the aged population behind bars balloons.
Rimutaka Prison, in Upper Hutt, opened a $750,000 20-bed high-dependency unit last year to cater for prisoners who can no longer look after themselves. It has an annual budget of $400,000.
But expansion plans are already under way as the Department of Corrections figures out how it will handle its ageing prison population, including many elderly sex offenders who could end up dying in jail because of a lack of suitable community support.
The Rimutaka unit is the only one of its kind nationwide, and its residents are mostly older men - some of whom have dementia - as well as younger prisoners with severe conditions such as motor neuron disease and multiple sclerosis.
Department offender health director Bronwyn Donaldson said the 10-bed extension was expected to be sufficient for the next three to five years, but after that more capacity would be needed.
There are more than 200 pensioner-aged offenders behind bars, including 97 prisoners aged 70 and older, and 13 aged over 80.
Often older prisoners experienced more health problems than their counterparts outside, Donaldson said.
"Some of the choices they've made means their health is not as good. If you've had significant drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues . . . in the community, we think of 65 being a bit old, in prison we think 55 is old."
She would not reveal the estimated cost of the planned expansion but a document released under the Official Information Act puts the expected additional staff costs at $180,000 a year.
The extension would use two additional nearby units, one of which would be renovated to provide an extra 10 beds, while the other would provide accommodation for 10 low-security prisoners who would look after the grounds and clean the unit.
The work is expected to be completed by the middle of next year.
- The Dominion Post