Aging Inmates: A Prison Crisis

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Every year starting in 2006, the Justice Department has announced that the aging prison population is one of its “top management challenges.” Major newspapers cover the issue, discussing the build up and consequences of this phenomenon. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch produce detailed reports on the topic. Many advocacy groups campaign for the release of elderly prisoners, and even prominent “tough-on-crime” politicians became concerned about rising healthcare costs in the prison system.

It has become common knowledge that the elderly are the fastest growing population in America’s prison system. Read on to learn about the magnitude of the problem, as well as reasons for, solutions to, and ramifications of the aging prisoner population in America.

How many elderly people are in prison now?

The number of men and women age 55 years and older has grown dramatically, from roughly 32,600 in 1995 to about 124,400 in 2010. That’s an increase of 282 percent in comparison with a 42.1 percent increase in the total prison population during the same years. In 2000, elderly inmates accounted for only three percent of the total prison population. In just ten years, their numbers increased by five percent. Now they account for approximately 16 percent of the total prison population.

It’s projected that the aging prison population may increase by 4,400 percent if you consider numbers from 1981 to 2030.  With this forecast, by 2030 prisoners 55 years and older will approach one third of the total prison population.

Across the states, the proportion of prisoners 55 years and older range from 4.2 percent to 9.9 percent. The highest rate is found in Oregon, and the lowest in Connecticut. In southern states, the elderly prisoner population increased by 145 percent just during the ten-year period from 1997 to 2007.

The majority of America’s elderly prisoners are male; elderly females constitute only six percent of all aging prisoners. In addition, 42 percent of aging prisoners are white, 33 percent are black, and around 15 percent are Hispanic.

Not surprisingly, older prisoners comprise the largest share of all prison deaths. From 2001 to 2007, 8,486 elderly inmates died in prison. The number of deaths increased 11.8 percent, from 33.9 percent in 2001 to 45.7 percent in 2007.

Those numbers are likely to increase as inmates continue to age and newly admitted middle-aged prisoners transition to older age.

Why are so many elderly people in prison?

Opinions differ on this matter, with some people pointing fingers at the “tough-on-crime” policies of the American government, while others cite the overall aging of the American population and those who commit crimes. Most likely, it’s all of the above.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the United States government enacted laws that allowed for longer sentences and restricted early releases. Among the most notorious policies were the mandatory minimum sentences, the “three strikes” laws, and the elimination of federal parole. The majority of now-elderly inmates entered the system at a much younger age and stayed there for decades, primarily due to the laws that mandated minimum sentences even for non-violent crimes. For example, 65 percent of aging prisoners in Texas are there for non-violent offenses, including drug-related and property crimes. In North Carolina, 26 percent of elderly inmates are habitual offenders, sentenced mostly for drug crimes, while 14 percent are sentenced for fraud, larceny, burglary, breaking and entering, and even traffic and public order violations. “Three strikes” laws for repeat offenders, truth-in-sentencing conditions, and technical parole revocations are all cited as contributing factors to the increase in the aging prison population in America. As a result, from 1986 to 1995, the number of prisoners serving 20 years or more tripled.

In addition, the number of prisoners who are serving life sentences has increased dramatically, including those with no possibility of release. It’s estimated that between 1984 and 2008, the number of life sentences increased about four times, from 34,000 to 140,610. Some of the prisoners can be eligible for parole in around 25 years depending on the jurisdiction, but only a small fraction of those will actually be released.

The increasing age of the prison population in America can be also attributed to the increased age at which offenders are entering prison. In recent years, people in their thirties and forties are getting arrested and sentenced to prison at higher rates. One study suggests that the driving force behind it is the growth in re-arrests of those who use drugs and have already spent some time behind bars.

How is the country affected by aging prisoners?

The most profound effect of the aging prison population is probably seen in the increased costs of housing and care for elderly inmates. Older prisoners are two to three times more expensive than younger offenders. It costs around $24,000 a year to house a young prisoner, but the expenses for an aging prisoner can be up to $72,000 per year. The reason for the jump, not surprisingly, is medical costs. As people grow older, they naturally have more health issues than their younger counterparts. Older prisoners with significant medical needs have to be housed in specific facilities that most prisons don’t have, or, if they do, cost them a fortune to maintain. Thus, prisons for aging populations increasingly resemble nursing homes more than correctional facilities.

Inmates are not eligible for federal health insurance programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, but by law are required to receive medical treatment. State and federal prisons cover all the costs. No matter whose responsibility it is to maintain prisons, taxpayers are the ones who pay for it. And as an aging prison population increases, healthcare costs will require more of the taxpayers’ money.

Watch the video below to understand the magnitude of the aging prison population problem.

What can be done to address the issue?

Investing in Prison Medical Care

Inmates are aging faster than the general population. Their physiological age is seven to ten years older than their chronological age. That means that if an inmate is 55 years old, he may have the medical needs of a 65-year-old person on the outside. The reasons for this phenomenon are lack of access to health services prior to incarceration, poor diet and exercise habits, and drug and alcohol abuse. At the same time, stress, lack of a support system, and depression while in prison add to the odds of faster aging.

No matter how you look at it, if we choose to keep elderly inmates in prison, we will have to provide adequate medical care and conditions, including appropriate housing and training for the staff. As of 2005, only 20 states had special housing for geriatric prisoners. Providing that the occupancy rate of these facilities may vary from 13 to 100 beds, it’s not nearly enough to care for all those who cannot get out of bed without assistance.

Releasing Elderly Inmates

Many state prisons have compassionate release and medical parole programs, but they are rarely used and often exclude violent or sex offenders. It can be granted for those inmates who have significant health problems, and those who are no longer considered a danger to society. Prisoners 55 years and older are often those who serve longer sentences for drug, violent, or sex crimes, meaning few of them will ever be eligible for early release.

In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged the issue of the aging prison population when he announced a new compassionate early release program for elderly inmates who pose no danger to the community and served more than half of their sentences. Since 1992, only 381 inmates were released under this condition in New York state. Other states have even lower rates of compassionate release.

The process of medical parole or compassionate release is a lengthy and sometimes difficult one for elderly inmates, as it may take many years and require demanding paperwork and evaluation. Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) is one of many organizations that advocate for the rights of aging inmates and help them to go through the application and evaluation process. The group supports early release programs for elderly New York state inmates, claiming that these individuals pose no threat to society and served considerable time behind the bars.

Watch the video below to learn more about current efforts to release elderly inmates.

Outsourcing to Nursing Homes

Some states are considering public-private partnerships with nursing homes as they can reduce costs by transferring elderly inmates to more age-appropriate facilities. In 2010, California passed Penal Code 6267, which allowed a variation of medical parole for certain inmates. Those who need 24-hour care and are no longer a danger to society can be sent to private nursing homes. They will be assigned a parole agent for this time, but should be returned to prison if and when their condition improves; however, many have conditions that are terminal.

Scrapping “Tough-on-Crime” Laws

Those who worry about the aging population suggest relaxing current “tough-on-crime” laws, including mandatory sentencing and habitual offender laws. As a result of these laws, violent and non-violent offenders alike are aging in prisons, even though some of them have potential for rehabilitation and pose no threat to the public. Lessening terms of incarceration and using other methods of punishment instead can reduce the overall aging of the prison population.

Arguments For Releasing Older Prisoners

Low Risk to Society 

The advocates for release argue that elderly and ill prisoners pose no threat to society, as most of them are physically incapacitated and mentally impaired. Prison experts agree that only a very small portion of older inmates come back to prison facilities, including those who are still in a good health. The reason for it is age itself, as older people generally commit fewer crimes and are less likely to relapse after serving time in prison. In fact, the number of people 55 years and older who enter the prison system for the first time is relatively low (3.5 percent) and declining.

Recent studies conducted in Florida and Colorado reveal that an older age at release–50 years and older–is the most important predictor of lower recidivism rates. At the same time, many now-older prisoners were sentenced for non-violent offenses. If they have never committed violent crimes in the first place, there is a very low risk of them committing violent offenses when they are old or sick.

Medical release is for geriatric inmates–those who have considerable health issues, are bound to a wheelchair or bed, and are generally incapacitated. The argument is centered on the notion that even if such prisoners wanted to go on a crime spree, they wouldn’t be able to pull it off due to health and mental problems.

The Right Thing To Do

Another supporting argument for releasing elderly inmates is that it’s simply the right thing to do. According to this argument, elderly prisoners with serious medical issues, who were incarcerated for non-violent crimes and served a significant part of their sentences, should be shown some mercy. In this view, age and sickness should be considerations for release, and, at this point, continuing imprisonment is viewed as cruel and inhumane punishment.

What are the arguments against releasing older prisoners?

It Wouldn’t Be Fair

The argument against releasing elderly and sick inmates is centered on the belief that punishment should be carried out to its fullest. It’s understandable, as some older prisoners have committed violent crimes, and therefore deserve to be punished. The supporters of this approach often refer to the victims’ rights. Not only do victims deserve justice through punishment of offenders, but also this punishment shouldn’t be conditioned on age or health. In this view, the costs of crime are believed to be much higher than those of housing and caring for older prisoners. As society pays for keeping criminals locked up, it also pays for medical treatment and counseling for crime victims, replacement of stolen items, and other expenses associated with crime. Even though victims advocates don’t oppose early releases for sick and non-violent offenders, many politicians employ this argument in the discussion of aging prison population.

What if they commit more crimes?

Another reason why elderly prisoners are not being released is fear of bad publicity coupled with unwillingness to take responsibility in parole decisions. If even one of the elderly prisoners who was released as a result of a state’s parole decision committed a violent crime, state officials could be denounced or blamed for it. Most of the parole board members are not corrections professionals but rather political appointees who often want to appear as protectors of public order.

Watch the video below to learn more about the most common arguments against releasing elderly inmates.

What will happen to elderly prisoners after release?

Some prisoners could go back to their families, while others could be released to nursing homes or assisted-living facilities; however, private nursing homes can be expensive, and, as elderly inmates have no assets, they can be placed in only government-approved facilities. Even in this case, most of these nursing homes don’t want to accept formerly incarcerated individuals, especially if they served time for sex crimes. At the same time, those nursing homes that are willing to take elderly inmates in may not have beds available, resulting in prolonged waiting periods.


The aging prison population has increased dramatically and will continue to grow at an even more rapid pace. Multiple reasons contribute to the aging population of prisoners, including “tough-on-crime” sentencing policies, increase in age of offenders, and the general aging of the American population. Inmates are also more likely to age quickly due to prior lifestyle and prison conditions. All in all, some correctional facilities have become reminiscent of nursing homes with bars. Even as opinions differ on how to resolve the issue of aging prison population, policymakers should provide solutions soon, as further failure to act can result in negative ramifications for the American economy and society at large.



State of California Legislative Analyst’s Office: Three Strikes – The Impact After More Than a Decade

North Carolina Department of Correction Division of Prisons: Aging Inmate Population Study


Nation Inside: RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison)

Human Rights Watch: Old Behind Bars. The Aging Prison Population in the United States.

ACLU: At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly

Al Jazeera: Old Age in the Big House

Correctional Association of New York: Compassion vs. Safety: Should Aging/Ill Prisoners Be Released?

FAMM: What are Mandatory Minimums?

Graying Prisoners: States Face Challenges of an Aging Inmate Population

National Real Estate Investor: Aging Prison Population Calls for Nursing Care Partnerships

The New York Times: Graying Prisoners

Psychology Today: Aging Prisoners. The prison system is a Cemetery of Hope

Stateville Speaks Blog – Loyola University Chicago: The Elderly in Prison and Recidivism

Wall Street Journal: New Research Challenges Assumptions About Aging Prison Population

USA Today: Aging Prisoners’ Costs Put Systems Nationwide in a Bind

Valeriya Metla
Valeriya Metla is a young professional, passionate about international relations, immigration issues, and social and criminal justice. She holds two Bachelor Degrees in regional studies and international criminal justice. Contact Valeriya at



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