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Aging Population Issues in American Prison System Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 8th, 2020


Over the next four years, there is a need to address the issue of the aging prison population in the U.S. A lot of concern has been expressed regarding the continuous growth of the number of older people in prison (Williams, Sudore, Greifinger, & Morrison, 2013). In 2006, the issue was pronounced one of the top management challenges of the U.S. Department of Justice (Psick, Simon, Brown, & Ahalt, 2017). The increase in the number of elderly individuals in prison requires the expansion of staff numbers to take care of inmates who have some disabilities such as vision loss or a debilitating sense of hearing. As a result, the costs of medical care for prisoners have risen dramatically over the last decade (Psick et al., 2017).

This paper aims to highlight the need to address the issue of an aging population, which is a substantial problem for America’s prison system. Also, the paper provides a brief discussion of economic, social, and political reasons for addressing the issue in a timely and effective manner. The analysis of the feasibility of the problem reaching the national agenda will also be included in the paper.


During the last decade, the rate of growth of the number of aged prisoners has noticeably increased (Psick et al., 2017). Most people in America’s prison system are considered elderly (Williams, Stern, Mellow, Safer & Greifinger, 2012). For example, there has been a significant growth of men and women aged 55 years and above from 32,600 to 124,400 between 1995 and 2010 (Psick et al., 2017). This growth accounts for about a 282% increase when compared to a 42.1% increase in the case of the total population increase in the prisons within the same duration (Psick et al., 2017). A case of an increase in the number of elderly people in prison was reported in 2000 when the number of elderly prisoners was only 3% of total America’s prison population, but in 10 years the population grew by 5% (Psick et al., 2017). Presently, this group of people accounts for more than 16%. (Psick et al., 2017).

Recent projections show that there is a possible increase in the number of elderly people in prison by about 4,400%, concerning the increasing trend since 1981 (Psick et al., 2017). Based on this estimate, the number of prisoners who are 55 years of age and above is likely to be 33.3% of America’s prison population (Psick et al., 2017). If assessed in terms of states, the number of aged prisoners ranges between 4.2% and 9.9%, with the state of Oregon having the highest rate and Connecticut having the lowest rate (Psick et al., 2017). Between 1997 and 2007, there was a 145% increase in the number of aged people in prison in the Southern States (Psick et al., 2017).

Male prisoners account for the highest percentage of America’s aging prison population since only about 6% of the elderly prisoners are females (Williams et al., 2012). In terms of race, 15%, 33%, and 42% of the total number of elderly prisoners are Hispanic, Black, and White, respectively (Williams et al., 2012). The elderly convicts also account for the highest number of deaths in prisons. For instance, more than 8,400 elderly inmates were reported dead in prison between 2001 and 2007 (Williams et al., 2012). This accounted for an increase in deaths by 11.8% in the period between 2001 and 2007 (Williams et al., 2012). According to Psick et al. (2017), there is a high probability that the number of deaths among elderly prisoners is going to increase. This is attributable to the fact that as the current prisoners continue to age, the admission of new ones continues.

Aging Trend

The number of elderly people in America’s prison systems continues to increase each year (Williams et al., 2012). As pointed above, new individuals are imprisoned each day, and they inevitably transition to older age (Williams et al., 2012). Even though this might be a significant contributing factor to the increased numbers of old age convicts, concerns have been raised regarding the government’s policies on “touch-on-crime” (Williams et al., 2012). Some scholars argue that the increased numbers of elderly people in prison are brought about by the general aging of the people in America as well as those individuals who engage in criminal activities (Williams et al., 2012).

For example, in the mid-seventies, the government of the United States established laws that were aimed at ensuring that people convicted of any crimes served a long jail term, and they would not be given early releases (Williams et al., 2012). For this reason, it is evident that most of the aged inmates were jailed when they were much younger and spent several decades in prison following the introduction of these laws, which restricted early release of prisoners including those who were convicted of non-violent crimes (Williams et al., 2012). A good example is the case of Texas prisons where 65 percent of the elderly inmates were convicted of crimes that were not related to violence offenses (Williams et al., 2012). In North Carolina, more than 26 percent of aged prisoners were incarcerated for drug-related crimes (Williams et al., 2012). Interestingly enough, other crimes accounted for about 14 percent of the total population of elderly inmates of the state (Williams et al., 2012).

Additionally, other factors that are considered to have played a significant role in the exacerbation of the issue include the technical revocations, the truth-in-sentencing conditions, and the “three strikes” laws that affect repeat offenders (Maschi, Viola, & Sun, 2013). Following such factors, the prison system of America experienced a 300 percent increase in the prison population especially for individuals serving a sentence of twenty years between 1986 and 1995 (Maschi et al., 2013). According to the provided statistics, it is evident that more and more old people are being jailed, a move that has significantly increased the number of old prisoners (Maschi et al., 2013). The continuous trend regarding the increase in the number of aged prisoners has been showing to have adverse impacts. The presence of older prisoners has costly implications for the economies of the country, the criminal justice system, and the communities in which these prisoners are released.

Justification to Address the Issue of Aging Prison Population

Numerous politicians have expressed their fears that the high number of old people in prison will have adverse effects on the social, economic, and political life of the United States (Williams et al., 2017). The economic facet of the issue has to do with the fact that it creates a substantial burden for the national budget due to the increased costs of the delivery of healthcare services as well as the costs of housing in prisons. This is attributable to the fact that as inmates grow old, the cost of their care and housing proportionally increases. The cost of taking care of elderly prisoners is higher than that of the younger ones because aging inmates require special care due to their increased vulnerability to several chronic illnesses.

The social implications of the problem of having a large population of elderly prisoners are associated with a need for prison administrations to offer conditions of confinement that correspond to the rights and the needs of the prisoners (Maschi et al., 2013). As of now, the majority of prisons in the United States do not have proper policies, resources support, and commitment to ensure that the elderly prisoners are provided with better care. For example, it has become very costly for the prison system to offer an appropriate response to geriatric populations’ needs that include, but are not limited to, health and medical care. Also, the probability of elderly prisoners experiencing mobility problems that can disrupt their emotional well-being is exceptionally high. The same can be said about the chances of older prisoners developing terminal, disabling, and chronic illnesses (Percival, 2015).

The high cost of medical care is associated with the fact that there is no provision for health insurance programs that cover individuals in prison (Rikard & Rosenberg, 2007). Access to health care services is a problem for people behind bars. Moreover, according to Maschi et al. (2013), the older state prisoners’ medical expenditure exceeds that of the young inmates by eight times. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of incarcerated individuals tend to suffer from poor diet and lack of exercise. Furthermore, people in prison are likely to grow old at a faster rate due to the emotional problems they encounter in prison.

The continued growth of the population of old people in prison is a challenge to the social, economic, and political pillars of American society. Despite the approach that one takes regarding the problem of increased numbers of elderly prisoners, it is hard to deny that the provision of adequate medical care conditions and the implementation of proper staff training programs are a must (Williams, Rothman, & Ahalt, 2017). Considering the rate of occupancy of the prisons, it is not possible to cater for all elderly prisoners who are not able to get out of bed by themselves; therefore, there is a need for policies that are aimed at ensuring that the care of elderly prisoners is improved (Rikard & Rosenberg, 2007).

Another important facet of the issue is that the increased number of elderly prisoners is a burden to the taxpayers since they a social group that takes care of prison security and control measures, which tend to be quite expensive (Rikard & Rosenberg, 2007). Considering the infirmities and the age of these prisoners, such security measures are not necessary since these individuals do not pose a high level of threat. There is ample evidence suggesting that some sentences of elderly inmates do not warrant a long stay in prison. The continuation of a prison term has no significant positive impacts as far as the principal aims of punishment are concerned, which includes retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation among others (Rikard & Rosenberg, 2007). In most cases, the continued incarceration of prisoners who have stayed in prison longer and have served a significant part of their sentence may be considered a violation of the rights of the affected prisoners regarding a proportionate and just punishment (Williams et al., 2017). Such conditions call for alternative forms of punishment that could help to achieve the goal of punishing an offender without overburdening the society. For example, home confinement could be an effective solution to the problem.

Taking into consideration the fact that the aging prison population takes a grave toll on the social life and public health of American communities, it can be argued that the problem has political ramifications. Politicians who will show that they are able to properly address the issue will amass a substantial amount of political capital that can be used to win elections and bring about meaningful social change. It is important to understand that the problem of mass incarceration is not a bipartisan issue. It can be argued that neither Republican nor Democratic party is interested in annually spending more than 80 billion dollars on the incarceration of elderly inmates (Williams et al., 2017).

Considering the magnitude of the effects caused by the increase in numbers of elderly people in America’s prisons, it is justified for the government to address the problem (Williams et al., 2017). Such a move would ensure that the available resources are not drained, and that appropriate system is put in place to improve the health care services provided to elderly prisoners. Compassionate release policies might become an effective solution for the problem, which at the same time has a high potential of becoming a political tool for politicians who know the intricacies of the agenda-setting theory. Such policies would allow “some prisoners with life-limiting or serious illness to die outside of prison” (Williams et al., 2017), thereby reducing unnecessary incarcerations.

The Feasibility of the Issue Reaching the National Agenda

The agenda-setting theory is referred to as the capacity of (mostly news media) to champion for the salience of a particular issue on the national agenda (Johnson, 2013). Two main presuppositions of the theory can be stated as follows: 1) the media does not reflect reality but shapes it; and 2) the media coverage of an issue leads to the distortion of audience’s perception of other problems, thereby making covered material more important for the public (Johnson, 2013). In this particular case, the core assumptions of the theory apply to the possibility of the problem of an aging prison population reaching the public agenda. If one were to consider media agenda-setting as the dependent variable in influencing the cognitive process of the nation, they would realize that to decrease the number of aging prisoners in the American justice system, the issue has to be covered more often. Currently, the coverage is lacking in terms of accessibility. It is extremely important because the agenda-setting effect can only take place if an issue is extensively covered by electronic and print media with large audiences (Johnson, 2013).

Policymakers play a key role in the agenda-setting process (Johnson, 2013). It has to do with the fact that they can often be more influential than even the most renowned media sources. Moreover, for any issue to achieve a substantial level of prominence, it has to be supported by some high-caliber politicians who understand how to properly leverage the media’s thirst for highly reliable sources of information that is valuable in terms of predictability and relevance. However, while the increase in the number of aging prisoners is a problem, there are various ideologies and current national trends that might interfere with the possibility of this issue gaining prominence in the public sphere.

Furthermore, the existence of various laws and regulations that govern the length of certain sentences impedes the development and implementation of new policies (Rikard & Rosenberg, 2007). For instance, there are ‘touch-on-crime’ laws that restrict prisoners from early releases regardless of a crime that one has committed. Also, the number of investigative committees assessing prison conditions is woefully low (Loeb, Steffensmeier, & Myco, 2007). The government laws and policies and the absence of prison investigations, substantially exacerbate the lack of political will to make the issue of the aging prison population a part of the national agenda.

Conclusions and Recommendations

It is evident that the issue of increased elderly prisoners in the American justice system has become a national crisis. The justice department has expressed its concerns about the adverse effects associated with the excessively high numbers of elderly prisoners. One of the significant problems is that the growth in the number of elderly prisoners is causing a strain on the resources allocated to the country’s prisons. This is attributable to the fact that elderly people have a high probability of suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses, which require advanced medical care and costly equipment. Such a situation increases the taxpayers’ burden. Therefore, the government should come up with a policy that ensures the reduction of the aging population in prisons by setting up a certain age limit making sure that elderly individuals do not remain in prisons longer than is required by the conditions of fair and just punishment.

Higher quality of health care services for aged prisoners is also a must. Notably, aged prisoners suffering from the loss of vision and hearing require special care (Williams et al., 2017). Such individuals might find it hard to cope with overcrowded conditions of prisons; therefore, the government should come up with better infrastructures to reduce excessively high occupancy rates.

The revision of the existing ideologies and values can be a suitable approach towards addressing the problem of an aging prison population. For example, the primary goals of punishment include retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. While ‘tough on crimes’ policies and accompanying them long sentences might have appeared as reasonable approaches to the reduction of the rates of criminal activities, these laws do little to achieve the goals of punishment and instead violate the rights of the prisoners.

Taking into consideration the social, economic, and political aspects of the issue, it can be argued that a lot needs to be done to address it properly. If the issue is not addressed, its effects will continue to tear apart the fabric of American society. Therefore, the government should come up with better policies that reduce the number of criminal activities that the elderly people can be jailed for and improve the mental and physical conditions of inmates.


Johnson, T. (2013). Agenda setting in a 2.0 world: New agendas in communication. New York, NY: Routledge.

Loeb, S. J., Steffensmeier, D., & Myco, P. M. (2007). In their own words: Older male prisoners’ health beliefs and concerns for the future. Geriatric Nursing, 28(5), 319-329.

Maschi, T., Viola, D., & Sun, F. (2013). The high cost of the international aging prisoner crisis: Well-being as the common denominator for action. The Gerontologist, 53(4), 543-554.

Percival, G. (2015). Smart on crime: The struggle to build a better American penal system. New York, NY: CRC Press.

Psick, Z, Simon, J, Brown R, & Ahalt, C. (2017). Older and incarcerated: Policy implications of aging prison populations. International Journal of Prison Health, 13(1), 57-63.

Rikard, R. V., & Rosenberg, E. (2007). Aging inmates: A convergence of trends in the American criminal justice system. Journal of Correctional Health Care, 13(3), 150-162.

Williams, B. A., Rothman, A., & Ahalt, C. (2017). . Web.

Williams, B. A., Stern, M. F., Mellow, J., Safer, M., & Greifinger, R. B. (2012). Aging in correctional custody: Setting a policy agenda for older prisoner health care. American Journal of Public Health, 102(8), 1475-1481.

Williams, B. A., Sudore, R. L., Greifinger, R., & Morrison, R. S. (2013). Balancing punishment and compassion for seriously ill prisoners. Annals of Internal Medicine, 155(2), 122-126.

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