Aging Behind Bars: How Elderly Convicts are Handled in the Prison System


There are an estimated 265,000 elderly prisoners serving the remaining time they have left on their long sentences in life behind bars. That is around 13% of all inmates across the country. While there may be some newbies receiving their first sentences after the age of 50, most elderly prisoners are career criminals or serving out time for a heinous crime committed in their earlier years.

How does the prison system handle elderly convicts and what can be done to help facilitate a better aging in place method when that means aging in place behind bars?

A Growing Burden

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), it costs twice as much to maintain an elderly convict than a younger one under the age of 50. As elderly within the prison system are living longer (a worldwide trend for all elderly people), their medical expenses become greater; placing a financial burden on an already encumbered institution.

It costs approximately $28,362 to $66,294 a year to maintain an elderly convict, depending on which state you look at. In 2012, the highest annual estimate for an incarcerated elderly person was $102,405, but the average is around $66,294. It is costing more to incarcerate an elderly person than it would for them to provide for themselves.

The annual taxpayer burden of incarcerating the estimated 265,000 elderly inmates is roughly $16 billion dollars.

The greater the amount of care needed, the higher the cost to the state and in turn tax payers who are now paying almost double of what was paid a couple decades ago. The annual taxpayer burden of incarcerating the estimated 265,000 elderly inmates is roughly $16 billion dollars. To put that number in perspective, that is more than the Department of Education’s budget for state improvements in elementary and secondary schools, and it is more than the entire Department of Energy’s annual budget.

Proposed Solutions to the Economic Burden

There is little that can be done to ease the financial strain and still uphold human rights: human rights that guarantee inmates the right to dignity, to receive adequate healthcare and medical attention, including mental health and disability accommodations, as well as the right to be treated with respect for their humanity. Given this juxtaposition of providing these fundamental human rights and the unintended consequences of a population aging in prison, a few solutions have been brought up for consideration and further review.

  • Reevaluation of the severe sentencing practices that have accounted for a ten-fold increase in life sentences since 1984, with a re-consideration of the three-strikes rule and truth-in-sentencing laws for possible repeal
  • Consider early release for end of life issues. This would not only reduce medical costs within the correctional institution, it would allow for those released to be on parole and still under supervision. Given the decreased likelihood that a frail elderly person would do anything to end up being put back in prison, this option would provide the biggest savings to an overburdened prison system and address the borderline elderly abuse and neglect concerns that are brought about by the system’s failed geriatric infrastructure
  • Provide geriatric training to medical staff to improve early detection of common geriatric ailments that respond well to early intervention, .e.g., arthritis, asthma, and diabetes
  • Restructure institutions to provide their own form of specialized medical and emergency treatment, reducing the cost associated with transporting inmates to other facilities
  • Implement healthy self-care programs geared towards geriatric activities to reduce the risk of healthcare complications, including geriatric counseling to help inmates cope with the psychological aspects of aging in prison

Quality of Life and Elderly Neglect Concerns

Getting the right medical attention is only part of the equation for allowing the prison population to age with dignity. The emotional and mental repercussions of aging in prison has a profound psychological effect. Prisons were not designed with the elderly in mind, and the system’s infrastructure reflects its inability to care for elderly inmates financially or qualitatively, bringing up elderly abuse and neglect concerns.

A series of short term reforms are needed for immediate relief. Raising taxes just isn’t a viable solution. There is a serious need to re-evaluate the necessity of keeping elderly people incarcerated.

At what point does a sentence become cruel? At what point is an inmate no longer deemed dangerous to society or at what point has their punishment been sufficient, their behavior corrected, which is, after all, the point of a corrections institution. The issue of aging in prison asks a myriad of difficult questions with no easy solutions, but talking about it openly is a step in the right direction.



ACLU. (June 2012). At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly. Available at Last Visited March 2, 2016.

Porporino, Frank. (2014). Managing the Elderly in Corrections. International Corrections & Prisons Association. Available at Last Visited March 2, 2016.