Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Aging Prisoners

By Julia SaltzmanPublished November 9, 2014

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Since the elderly are the fastest-growing segment of the already too large prison population in America, we should release older prisoners who do not threaten public safety. Long-term imprisonment of the elderly is harming the prisoners and costing the taxpayers.
By Julia Saltzman, 11/9/2014

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Over two million of our citizens are housed in prisons and jails. The country's current incarceration system has so many failings that it can be difficult for policymakers to even decide where to begin to tackle the problems. Although I think that our nation's prisons need a complete overhaul, I believe that the first steps should be to deal with the immense burdens that come with imprisoning the elderly.

Due to tough-on-crime policies and longer sentencing that defined our criminal policies in the 1980s and 1990s, our country has experienced a dramatic rise in prison populations and more prisoners are staying in correctional facilities into their old age. The elderly are now the fastest-growing segment of the prison population and between 1995 and 2010 the prison population over age 55 quadrupled. According to the National Institute of Corrections, there are 246,600 elderly people behind bars. This number is only expected to rise as prisoners serving long sentences grow older. By 2030, a third of all inmates will be elderly.

Many of these prisoners are harmless, serving sentences for nonviolent crimes and often suffering from mental and physical illnesses.  Most of these people are not who Americans think of when they think of who should be locked up in prison. The United States should consider releasing elderly individuals who no longer pose a significant safety threat because as a recent ACLU report on the mass incarceration of the elderly explains, "recidivism drops dramatically with age." If an elderly person is not a threat to public safety, has a desire to return to the outside world, and has come to understand the implications of the crime committed, then our correctional system should consider his or her release on parole.

As expensive as it is to incarcerate any individual, the cost skyrockets when this individual is elderly. The ACLU report finds that the cost to imprison an average prisoner is normally $34,135 per year but becomes $68,270 per year when a prisoner is older than 50. This means that the $77 billion we spend annually on incarceration will only increase as the prison population ages. A state could save $1 million a year if they were to release just 14 of these elderly inmates.

Quality of care provided in prisons is also a cause for alarm. These facilities are designed to be prisons, not nursing homes. Medical care is poor and prison facilities are not built to accommodate the elderly. There are already far too few medical professionals working in prisons and even fewer specialize in geriatric care. Aging causes health problems under the best circumstances, and difficulties are exacerbated by the harsh conditions of prison.

            Although programs to release older inmates and help integrate the elderly into society are an excellent place for the correctional system to start and should be widely implemented, we also need to revamp how we think about punishment so that fewer inmates stay in prison until old age or death. Corrections are supposed to be about correcting an inmate, but the current system places far too high of a focus on punishment and retribution. If we rethink our rationale for our treatment of criminals, problems like ballooning budgets and horrendous conditions may start to solve themselves.