by Bill Berkowitz

If you are an aging prisoner in the United States, 50 is the new 65. This phenomenon is called “accelerated aging” and according to the Urban Institute’s KiDeuk Kim and Bryce Peterson, “the physiological age of some older prisoners is up to 15 years greater than their chronological age.”

This is in stark contrast to outside prison walls where our youth-oriented culture labels “40 as the new 30,” “60 as the new 50,” and so on.

Older prisoners — a demographic that is growing rapidly — face numerous hardships and injustices from incarceration, including: having their chronic health conditions ignored or mistreated; physical threats from younger prisoners; the need for special equipment, including wheelchairs and walkers to be able to ambulate around their prisons; difficulties climbing on and off top bunks; trouble hearing, making it challenging to discern orders from guards; and mental health issues, many of which are the result of prolonged imprisonment.

In a new report titled, “Aging Behind Bars: Trends and Implications of Graying Prisoners in the Federal Prison System,” Kim and Peterson emphasize that, “While this may be caused by a host of related factors — including histories of unhealthy behaviors and inadequate healthcare — there is little doubt that the trauma and stress of the prison environment can have an impact on prisoners’ accelerated aging and deterioration of health.”’s Tanvi Misra recently reported that, “In 1994, prisoners over 50 made up only 12 percent of the total U.S. federal prison population. In the intervening years, the number of seniors in prison has increased 330 percent. It’s the fastest growing age group in the federal prison population, as the report notes.” In less than five years, the number of prisoners over 50, which was at 18 percent in 2011, could rise to as high as 28 percent.

Kim and Peterson point out that “Not only do older prisoners require more treatment and medical care than younger prisoners, their needs may also require more time and effort from the prison staff, such as when a staff member gives them medicine or monitors their daily chores. Staff may also need to provide more surveillance and protection to older prisoners, as they are more likely than younger prisoners to experience physical injuries and victimization.”

According to “Aging Behind Bars,” “The annual cost of incarcerating an individual age 50 and older has been estimated at $68,270, double the cost of a younger offender. This estimate equates to $16 billion a year spent on older inmates nationally, even though they make up less than 20 percent of the total prison population.”

The new report also points out that:

* “The growth rate of older prisoners varies across offense type, gender, and race,” and “the proportion of older female prisoners is growing faster than that of older male prisoners, and providing health care services to aging women generally costs substantially more.”

Triple bunks in the overcrowded prison system. A new report, “Aging Behind Bars,” found that older prisoners have difficulties climbing on and off top bunks, and are vulnerable to physical threats from younger prisoners.


* “The fiscal burden of aging prisoners is applicable to a wide range of prison operations (e.g., medical supplies, welfare services, treatment, training), not just the upkeep of medical housing units.”

* “If prisoners age 50 and older cost three times more than younger prisoners, the per person cost of [imprisoning] and programs in BOP would be approximately $9,000 for those below age 50 and $27,000 for those age 50 and older.”

* “At five times more, older prisoners can consume up to one-half of the BOP’s total allocation for [imprisoning them] (approximately $1.2 billion in FY 2012).”

Unless systemic changes are instituted on a national level, the aging prison population will continue to grow, as will the cost of incarcerating them. The trend of privatization, which is popular with many politicans, is not a viable or just solution, as the privatizer’s interests in profits trumps the possibility of ideally releasing them, or short of that improving their conditions.

But their accelerated aging is likely due, as the “Aging Behind Bars: Trends and Implications of Graying Prisoners in the Federal Prison System,” report notes, to being in prison in the first place and subject to an inhumane, stressful and dangerous environment.

As noted above, the ideal option would be the release of elderly prisoners, because their continued incarceration neither serves their well-being nor that of society. However, that requires breaking with the United States’ harmful infatuation with incarceration, having the highest percentage of people behind bars in the world. It would also necessitate providing community support systems for the ex-offenders once they are released.

This would require a paradigm shift regarding the role of the incarceration system in the United States.

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