A new Urban Institute report examines the costs of the rapidly growing aging population in American prisons. Getty Images

The number of U.S. prisoners age 50 and over has increased 330 percent since 1994.

The last baby boomer will turn 65 in 2030, but infrastructure across the United States (from our housing stock to the very configuration of our streets) is not going to mature fast enough to meet the needs of the newly elderly. A new Urban Institute report adds one more institution to the list of those being affected by this dramatic demographic shift: our prisons, where older and older inmates are taking their own toll on the nation's already-overextended corrections budget.

Right now, prisoners over 50 make up about 18 percent of the total U.S. federal prison population. That may seem like a small share, but the costs of caring for these inmates are much larger than for their younger counterparts—and their numbers are only expected to balloon, says Bryce Peterson, a research associate at the Urban Institute and one of the report's authors.

As the U.S. Population Ages, the Same Is True for Its Prisons

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.

One reason is that people are entering the prison system at an older age, which is consistent with the broader trend of an aging population overall in the United States over the last two decades, says Peterson.

The U.S. prison population has been getting older. (Urban Institute)

The other reason is that prison sentences were longer during this period—in other words, people are growing old in jail.

"We incarcerate more people than anyone else in the world, and matching that trend has been more emphasis on punitiveness in the system," Peterson explains. "So, crimes that maybe received lesser sentences 10 years, 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, are now getting longer sentences."

By 2019, the report estimates, the proportion of older prisoners is expected to rise to 28 percent—a much more sizable chunk.

Projected growth rate of aging population. (Urban Institute)

How Much More Does It Cost to Imprison Older Americans?

Some data put the per-older prisoner cost at double that of a younger offender, though other research suggests it can be as much as five times the typical amount.

The main reason for the variance is obvious: older people have more health care needs. But compounding the issue is that the "physiological" age of the average prisoner—due to the stress of being incarcerated—can be as much as 15 years higher than their actual age, Peterson says, so medical issues for inmates can easily multiply at a younger age than the typical American. Older prisoners need more help doing everyday activities and are more likely to be victimized by fellow prisoners, all of which translates to increased costs.

And There's Still a Lot We Don't Know

One limitation of the report is that there's just not enough data on this subject. Peterson points out that he's unable to even guess at the variations in costs and health outcomes within subgroups of the aging prison population, like among older women or minorities, because so little research is being done in this area.

Plus, most correctional programs only consider prisoners for compassionate release programs in extreme cases, such as if they qualify for hospice or palliative care. Peterson and his co-authors recommend that the scope of reporting on aging prisoners be expanded, especially since all the evidence shows that older prisoners are less likely to repeat their offenses.  

RECIDIVISM VS. AGE AT RELEASE AMONG U.S. PRISON POPULATION

(Urban Institute)

More research in this direction will be key to figuring out how to manage the needs of aging inmates without compromising public safety.

"We feel there’s a way to balance both of those," Peterson says.

About the Author

Tanvi Misra
Tanvi Misra

Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.

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