Old Behind Bars

An ACLU report At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly says that the US, the largest incarcerator in the world, with 2.3 million people behind bars, is seeing prisoners getting older with the same ailments afflicting those of the same age who are not behind bars. Correctional facilities are becoming veritable nursing homes with taxpayers footing the bill. From 1980 to 2010, the US prison population grew over 11 times faster than the general population. During this time, the general population increased by 36%, while the state and federal prison population increased by over 400%.

The older prison population is now a national epidemic afflicting states around the country. According to the National Institute of Corrections, prisoners age 50 and older are considered “elderly” or “aging” due to unhealthy conditions prior to and during incarceration. There are 246,600 elderly prisoners behind bars across the country. In 1981, there were 8,853 state and federal prisoners age 55 and older. Today, that number stands at 124,900, and experts project that by 2030 this number will be over 400,000, amounting to over one-third of prisoners in the US. The elderly prison population is expected to increase by 4,400% over this fifty-year time span.

Evidence shows that recidivism drops dramatically with age. In New York, only 7% of prisoners released from prison at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions within three years. That number drops to 4% for prisoners age 65 and older. In contrast, this number is 16% for prisoners released at age 49 and younger. Further, most aging prisoners are not incarcerated for murder, but are in prison for low-level crimes. State and federal governments spend approximately $77 billion annually to run our penal system. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674%, substantially outpacing the growth of other government spending, and becoming the fourth-largest category of state spending. The report finds that it costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but it costs $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 and older. The report estimates that releasing an aging prisoner will save states, on average, $66,294 per year per prisoner, including healthcare, other public benefits, parole, and any housing costs or tax revenue. 

See also the Human Rights Watch report, Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States with data developed from a variety of federal and state sources that document dramatic increases in the number of older US prisoners. Both reports are available in SARA, the Brooklyn Law School Libary catalog.