An ever-growing and ever-aging inmate population means more Missouri prisoners are likely to die behind bars in the coming years.
Against that backdrop, the Missouri Department of Corrections is seeking bids from funeral homes across the state in a search for the best deal on burial and cremation services for prisoners.
According to bidding documents, the state wants the cheapest wood box and the most inexpensive grave liners, to cut down on an expense that cost taxpayers $62,000 last year.
While the department typically notifies inmate families when a prisoner dies, not all want the body nor can afford the expense of burial or cremation.
In such cases, and when a prisoner has no family, the state pays for disposing of the remains.
Under the current set-up, arranging a burial is left to local prison officials, who work with a local funeral home.
Now the state wants to formalize that process in hopes of reducing the overall cost.
With more than 32,000 inmates, Missouri’s prison population has more than doubled since 1990, when it was 14,074. Much of that increase comes from the rise of long, mandatory sentences.
With more prisoners serving more time, states such as Missouri are grappling with more inmate deaths.
Nationally, the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 88 percent of the 3,351 inmate deaths in 2012 were from illnesses. The age category with the most deaths was over 55.
As the state’s bidding documents note, “As the offender population ages, the expense associated with offender deaths increases.”
In 2015, Missouri officials say, 104 inmates died behind bars. Of those, the remains of 55 were not claimed by family.
That number could increase. There are 1,415 incarcerated offenders over age 60. The oldest is James Alexander, 92, a Bonne Terre man serving a 20-year term for a rape he committed at age 88.
Under terms of the bid, the state will have 19 pickup points at facilities throughout the state.
Whoever is hired will provide transportation, storage and cremation or burial preparation services for one or more of the prisons.
“The contractor shall store the deceased offender’s remains in a refrigeration unit 40 degrees or below as required by the state prior to cremation or burial,” the documents state.
The state also doesn’t want anything fancy. According to the request, funeral homes are asked to provide the lowest-priced casket available and, if necessary, the lowest-priced grave liner available.
But Corrections’ officials will listen to family members if they express a preference on what they want done with their relatives.
“The department typically takes into account the wishes of family members, offenders and their religious beliefs when making the determination of cremation or burial. This will not change when a contract is in place,” agency spokesman David Owen said.
As for a headstone, Owen said, it depends on how much a prisoner had in his or her personal prison bank account.
“The department does pay for a marker if it chooses burial, and funds from the inmate’s account can be used for that purpose, as well,” he said.
Other states have dealt with the issue in various ways. Texas operates a cemetery for inmates. In Louisiana, inmates make coffins in which to bury fellow prisoners who have died.
Missouri used to have a cemetery for inmates at the now-shuttered state penitentiary in Jefferson City. But the department no longer maintains any cemeteries.
In Illinois, remains that are not claimed by a family member are buried in local cemeteries at the department’s expense, Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said.
The cost of burying inmates in Illinois last year was $75,000 and was an estimated $74,000 the previous year.
Illinois does not pay for gravestones or markers, Wilson said.
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
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