Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

The aging prison population: A rapidly growing issue

Written by Renee Hays, MSW candidate, Brown School; student in Contemporary Perspectives on Aging

The American prison population has been aging at a rapid pace throughout the twenty-first century. According to the National Institute of Corrections, between 1993 and 2013, the number of prisoners in America aged 55 and older sentenced to at least one year in prison increased by 400%. In 2013 that number was 131,500 prisoners, according to a Pew research study, by 2016 that number was 164,400.

Looking back, an aging prison population was an inevitable outcome of choices made decades before now. As pointed out by Interrogating Justice, a think tank which analyzes the needs of inmates, when mandatory minimums became the norm, sentences became longer. Mandatory minimums dictated that for certain crimes, people’s sentences could be no shorter than a preset number of years, no matter the circumstance. Therefore, there was less leeway in sentencing, and longer sentences. What follows longer sentences is older people in prisons. Along with that, Pew(2016) indicates that the number of people being admitted to prison over 55 increased as well. The Claude Pepper Center theorizes that the age that people commonly commit crimes is rising with the aging population, causing older admissions. From 2003 to 2013, the admission of inmates above the age of 55 increased by 82%. These two things together were always going to lead to the situation of today.

One of the evident problems with having older prisoners is that, as people age, health issues increase. Health issues are also more prevalent for prisoners. The Department of Justice reported that in 2016 prisoners were around 12% more likely than the general population to have chronic conditions. Prisons are not built to account for the needs of people with frailty or dementia. As stated in the aforementioned Pew research paper, conditions like dementia, mobility loss, and impaired senses can require adaptations in prison practices. Increased staffing or more intensive training become necessary to ensure that corrections officers can appropriately address the needs of older inmates. It may also be necessary to make updates or changes to the building itself to put in railings or ramps. This makes older inmates expensive for the prison. Interrogating Justice reports that older inmates cost the incarceration system around twice as much as younger inmates, between $60,000 and $70,000 annually.

One of the most common proposed solutions to this issue is what is called “compassionate release”. In her article Elsewhere and Nowhere, Mary Price defines compassionate release as “releasing those whose health has made it unreasonable to keep them incarcerated.” This can mean someone’s health has diminished so much that his imprisonment is considered immoral, or that someone is facing death soon. Compassionate release has existed federally since the sentencing reform act of 1984, but as the Compassionate Release Project points out, the law says this can only occur for “extraordinary and compelling reasons”. As a result, it is uncommon. Some people push back against a more liberal use of compassionate release, arguing that these people were given certain sentences for a reason. However, a wider use and acceptance of the concept could help to minimize the amount of older inmates in prison before the situation becomes so overwhelming that the country has no options.

This blog post author is a student in the course, Contemporary Perspectives on Aging, led by Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, the Bettie Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy, at the Brown School and Director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health. The course examines current issues of aging societies, from individual, family and community perspectives and uses a multidisciplinary lens to consider the biological, social, and psychological aspects of longer lives.