Earlier this month in Virginia, a few old and infirm men began moving into their new home, a prison constructed, outfitted and staffed to meet their "special needs."

On first glance, the compassion shown by the state may seem laudable. But how appropriate is it to incarcerate thousands of elderly inmates in either regular prisons or prison nursing homes?

Virginia, like many other states, is being overwhelmed by a rapidly growing elderly inmate population that consumes a disproportionate amount of prison resources. In 1995, for example, Ohio projected that it would need 3,000 beds for elderly inmates by 2003. It exceeded that figure in 1997.

The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives recently conducted a national survey of correctional agencies. It found nearly 50,000 inmates age 55 and older in state and federal prisons, a 750 percent increase in the past 20 years. More than 50 percent of these prisoners are convicted of nonviolent offenses. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nonviolent offenders make up an astonishing 97.4 percent of elderly inmates.

Studies on criminal behavior and age show that the older we are, the less likely we are to commit crimes. Only 1.4 percent of those on probation or parole who return to prison are older than 55.

Yet instead of looking for alternative means of punishing, supervising and caring for elderly offenders, many states and the federal government spend huge amounts of taxpayer money to keep elderly and infirm inmates locked up long after they pose much risk to the community.

The cost of incarcerating an elderly inmate averages $69,000 per year -- two to three times the cost of other prisoners. Virginia spends more than $61 million annually on only 891 inmates, who represent 3 percent of the inmate population. Virginia's special facility for infirm and elderly patients will have room for only 200 prisoners -- about one-fourth of its population of elderly inmates.

Instead of $69,000 for a nursing home prison cell, we could spend $32,000 (the national average) on non-secure nursing homes for those who are infirm. If necessary, nursing home care can be coupled with intensive probation supervision, which costs about $6,500 annually.

Additionally, many elderly inmates are veterans of the armed services and could have their medical needs met at VA hospitals. For those who do not need 24-hour care, other noninstitutional options are viable. House arrest, electronic monitoring, day reporting, day treatment or regular probation all cost tens of thousands less for each inmate and are well suited to nonviolent elderly offenders.

Last year the Heritage Foundation and the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives co-sponsored two summits on elderly inmates. We convened a group of national leaders, criminal justice professionals and concerned citizens that included former U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese III and former Federal Bureau of Prisons director Michael Quinlan.

The group agreed that we must more wisely use our custodial resources. Specifically, we must devise appropriate facilities and activities for elderly inmates who will grow old and die in prison. But most important, we must devise alternative means of supervision for those elderly inmates who pose a limited threat to the community and for whom prison is not an appropriate means of punishment, supervision or care.

As a result of these meetings, legislation soon should be introduced in the Senate to end the senseless incarceration of nonviolent elderly federal inmates. If adopted, this legislation will save taxpayers millions of dollars each year without sacrificing public safety. Virginia and other states should be encouraged to pursue similar solutions. From both a fiscal and humanitarian perspective, our nation can do better.

-- Barry R. Holman

is the director of research and public policy for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.