Prison populations around the country are growing, requiring states to spend more on inmate health care each year.
West Virginia saw a 38 percent increase in prisoner health care spending between 2001 and 2008, going from $15.7 million to $21.7 million, according to a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
That's much better than other states. New Hampshire saw a 379 percent increase in inmate health care spending, going from $5.4 million in 2001 to $25.8 million in 2008.
California topped the list of inmate health care costs in both 2001 and 2008, spending $981 million and $1.98 billion, respectively.
West Virginia's prison health spending ranked 36th out of the 44 states included in the Pew study.
Researchers identified three main reasons for the nationwide increase in prison health care costs: growing prison populations, aging prisoners and the overall rise in health care costs.
Having more inmates behind bars naturally leads to an increase in inmates with health care needs, which increases costs. But the nation's aging prison population also is causing significant problems for prison administrators.
Researchers found that from 2001 to 2008, the number of prisoners 55 or older increased 94 percent, from 40,200 to 77,300.
Meanwhile, the number of prisoners younger than 55 grew by 12 percent, from 1.3 million to 1.46 million, researchers found.
"Like older Americans outside prison, older inmates are more likely to have physical and mental illnesses," Maria Schiff, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' state health care spending project, told reporters in a teleconference this week.
Schiff said the health challenges of aging prisoners is leading to some states to increase training requirements for prison staff, increase more medical services and even build special housing facilities. Some states are even looking to build prison nursing homes for its oldest and sickest inmates.
West Virginia Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said the trend is a little less drastic in the Mountain State, but still is occurring.
About 12 percent of West Virginia 6,800 prisoners are 55 or older. Ten years ago, only about 7 percent of the state prison population was that old.
Rubenstein attributed West Virginia's increased prison health care costs to an overall jump in the number of people in state prisons, however, not just aging inmates.
In 2001, there were 4,106 people in state prisons. By 2008, 6,097 people were in Division of Corrections custody.
Rubenstein said the prison system likely will request more money for medical services in next year's budget because of the 388-bed facility it plans to open in Salem.
"Ours has been more of a direct correlation of the growth and the additional beds," he said.