January 27, 2012

I. Older Prisoners

Individual men and women in prison, as in the community, age at different rates and in different ways. In prison, there are prisoners who, at 75 years old, are more active, independent, and healthy than some who are much younger but who struggle with even the simplest of activities because of the burdens of disease and impairment. For purposes of analysis and planning for the current and future needs of their prison populations, however, most corrections systems have set a specific chronological age to serve as a proxy for the physical and mental changes and conditions that correlate with aging. Their definitions of “older” inmates range from 50 years of age (used by 15 states) to 70 years (used by 1).[2]

In the community, age 50 or 55 would not be considered “older.” But incarcerated men and women typically have physiological and mental health conditions that are associated with people at least a decade older in the community. This accelerated aging process is likely due to the high burden of disease common in people from poor backgrounds who comprise the majority of the prison population, coupled with unhealthy lifestyles prior to and during incarceration. These factors are often further exacerbated by substandard medical care either before or during incarceration.[3] The violence, anxiety, and stress of prison life, isolation from family and friends, and the possibility of spending most or all of the rest of one’s life behind bars can also contribute to accelerated aging once incarcerated.

How Many Older Prisoners?

Whatever the age cutoff used, there is no question that there has been a remarkable growth in the absolute number and proportion of older prisoners in the US prison population.[4]

National Data

Perhaps the most dramatic indication of the surging number of older prisoners comes from data on the number of state and federal prisoners who are age 65 or older. In 2007 there were 16,100; by 2010 there were 26,200, an increase of 63 percent. Yet during that same time period, the total number of prisoners grew by 0.7 percent.[5]

Figure 1: Growth in State and Federal Prison Population, by Age, 2007-2010

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoner Series, 2007 to 2010. Note: Based on number of sentenced prisoners under jurisdiction of federal and state correctional authorities with sentences of more than one year and estimates for the number of sentenced prisoners by age.

In the last fifteen years, the number of men and women age 55 years or older in US prisons has grown markedly, and at an increasingly rapid pace.[6] In 1995, there were 32,600.[7] By 2010, there were 124,400.[8]

Table 1: Sentenced State and Federal Prisoners by Age, 1995- 2010 [9]

Year

Total

Percent Change in Total

Age 55 or older

Percent Change in 55 or older

1995

1,085,369

32,600

1996

1,138,984

4.9%

n/a

n/a

1997

1,195,498

5.0%

41,070

n/a

1998

1,245,402

4.2%

42,966

4.6%

1999

1,304,074

4.7%

43,300

0.8%

2000

1,329,367

1.9%

44,200

2.1%

2001

1,345,217

1.2%

40,200

-9.0%

2002

1,380,516

2.6%

40,800

1.5%

2003

1,408,361

2.0%

60,300

47.8%

2004

1,433,728

1.8%

69,900

15.9%

2005

1,462,866

2.0%

66,500

-4.9%

2006

1,504,660

2.9%

80,200

20.6%

2007

1,532,850

1.9%

76,600

-4.5%

2008

1,547,742

1.0%

77,800

1.6%

2009

1,550,196

0.2%

79,100

1.7%

2010

1,543,206

-0.5%

124,400

57.3%

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoner Series, 1995 - 2010. Note: Based on number of sentenced prisoners under jurisdiction of federal and state correctional authorities with sentences of more than one year and estimates for the number of sentenced prisoners by age.

The number of prisoners age 55 or older grew at a much faster rate than the total prison population, growing by 282 percent compared to a 42.1 percent increase in the prison population.[10]

Figure2: Growth in State and Federal Prison Population, by Age, 1995-2010

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoner Series, 1995-2010. Note: Based on number of sentenced prisoners under jurisdiction of federal and state correctional authorities with sentences of more than one year and estimates for the number of sentenced prisoners by age.

The proportion of prisoners 55 years or older in the prison population has also soared. In 2010, 8 percent of state and federal prisoners were age 55 or older, whereas in 2000, they had accounted for 3 percent of the total.[11]

The number of older prisoners is growing faster than the number of older persons in the US population, as is evident from the growth in incarceration rates relative to population. For example, between 2007 and 2010, the rate of incarceration for men age 65 and over increased from 95 per 100,000 male US residents of that age to 142 per 100,000.

Indeed, the 2010 rate of incarceration of men 65 and over in the United States exceeds the total rate of incarceration in most countries.[12]

The demographics of older state prisoners differ somewhat from those of the total state population, with greater percentages of men and greater percentages of whites. There were about 21 times more men age 55 and older than women of that age in prisons among the states who reported prison population data to the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) for 2009, although in the total state prison population in 2010 men outnumbered women by 13 to 1.[13] With regard to race, whites accounted for 53.7 percent of prisoners 55 or older and blacks 39.1 percent among the NCRP reporting states in 2009, although in the 2010 total prison population blacks accounted for a greater percentage than whites, 42.7 percent to 38.9 percent.[14]

State by State Data

States vary considerably in the relative size of their population of older inmates. Among states reporting year-end prison population data to the National Corrections Reporting Program, the proportion of prisoners age 55 years or over ranged from 4.2 percent to 9.9 percent, with the highest proportions found in Oregon (9.9 percent), 2 percentage points above the second highest rate (7.9 percent in Pennsylvania). The lowest rate (4.2 percent) was found in Connecticut, followed by North Dakota (5.0 percent).[15]

More detailed data from several states exemplifies the dramatic growth in older prisoners that states have experienced in the last decades:

  • In California, the percentage of inmates 55 or older increased by over 500 percent between 1990 and 2009; in comparison, the growth of the total inmate population over the same period was about 85 percent. In June 1990, the population age 55 or older was 2.1 percent of the prison population. As of June 2009 it made up 7.1 percent and is projected to increase to 15 percent by 2019.[16]
  • In New York, the proportion of inmates age 55 or older increased more than threefold in 15 years, from 2.3 percent of all inmates in 1995 to 7.2 percent in 2010.[17]

Some states define older prisoners as those age 50 or older.

  • In Colorado, inmates age 50 years or older increased by 720 percent between 1991 and 2009, compared to the total inmate population growth of 208 percent in those years.[18]
  • In Florida, the prison population age 50 or over increased from 8.6 percent of all inmates in fiscal year 2000/2001 to 16.0 percent in fiscal year 2009/2010.[19]
  • In Georgia, the population age 50 or over increased from 10 percent of all inmates in 1990 to 16 percent in 2011.[20]
  • In Missouri, the percentage of prisoners age 50 or over doubled in the past ten years, rising to 15.3 percent of all inmates in fiscal year 2010.[21]
  • In Ohio, inmates age 50 or over grew from 9.5 percent of the total prison population in 2001 to 14.5 percent in 2010.[22] Between 1997 and 2010, the number of prisoners age 50 or over increased by 126.2 percent.[23]
  • In the 16 states that are part of the Southern Legislative Conference, the population of older inmates (as defined by each state) grew by 136 percent between 1997 and 2006, and increased from 5.6 to 10.5 percent of the total prison population. Louisiana had the highest increase in elderly inmates over that period, 199 percent, and Oklahoma had the lowest increase, 85.4 percent; but even in Oklahoma, the growth rate for older inmates was still four times that of the total inmate population.[24]
  • In Virginia, 12.2 percent of the prison population in 2008 was age 50 or over, reflecting a six-fold increase since 1990.[25]

[2]Vera institute of Justice, “It’s About Time: Aging Prisoners, Increasing Costs and Geriatric Release,” 2010, http://www.vera.org/content/its-about-time-aging-prisoners-increasing-costs-and-geriatric-release (accessed November 29, 2011); Jeremy L. Williams, Southern Legislative Conference, “The Aging Inmate Population: Southern States Outlook,” December 2006, http://www.slcatlanta.org/Publications/HSPS/aging_inmates_2006_lo.pdf (accessed November 29, 2011), p. 1. Some states do not have a chronological age cutoff for defining elderly, but rely on degree of disability. B. Jaye Anno et al., US Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, “Correctional Health Care: Addressing the Needs of Elderly, Chronically Ill, and Terminally Ill Inmates,” February 2004, http://nicic.gov/library/018735 (accessed December 12, 2011), p. 9, referring to results of a 2001 survey by the Criminal Justice Institute.

[3] Brie Williams and Rita Abraldes, “Growing Older: Challenges of Prison and Reentry for the Aging Population,” in Robert Greifinger, ed., Public Health Behind Bars: From Prisons to Communities (New York: Springer, 2007), p. 56 (internal citations omitted). See also generally, Anno et al., “Correctional Healthcare,” pp. 8-9; and Ronald H. Aday, Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections (Westport: Praeger, 2003).

[4] In this report, unless otherwise indicated, we use age 55 or above to define prisoners considered “older.”

[5] Calculated from data in Heather C. West and William J. Sabol, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prisoners in 2007,” December 2008, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/p07.pdf (accessed November 29, 2011), Appendix Table 7; Paul Guerino, Paige M. Harrison, and William J. Sabol, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prisoners in 2010,” December 2011, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2230 (accessed January 12, 2012), Appendix Table 13. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics annually publishes data on the estimated number of state and federal prisoners by age. The numbers are based on sentenced prisoners under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities with a sentence of more than one year. 2007 was the first year BJS began breaking out age categories to include prisoners 65 and older. Unless otherwise indicated, all references to federal and state prisoners obtained from BJS annual prisoner reports refer to sentenced prisoners.

[6] In 1979, there were approximately 6,500 state and federal prisoners in the United States age 55 years or older. Herbert J. Hoelter, National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, “Imprisoning Elderly Offenders: Public Safety or Maximum Security Nursing Homes, Executive Summary,” December 1998, p. 2.

[7]Allen J. Beck and Paige M. Harrison, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prisoners in 2003,” November 2004, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/po3.pdf (accessed December 14, 2011), Table 10 (for 1995 figures).

[8] Guerino, Paige, and Sabol, “Prisoners in 2010,” Appendix Table 13.

[9]The number of prisoners age 55 or older in 1996 not available from Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of prisoners 55 or older is in Beck and Harrison, “Prisoners in 2003,” Table 10, November 2004.

 

[10] The growth in older prisoners appears to be accelerating. In the five years between 1995 and 2000, the number of state and federal prisoners age 55 or older grew by 35.6 percent. But in the ten years between 2000 and 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners age 55 or older almost tripled, growing by 180 percent. The total prison population increased only 15 percent during that latter period.

[11]Calculated from data in Allen J. Beck and Paige M. Harrison, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prisoners in 2000,” August 2001, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=927 (accessed December 12, 2011), Table 14; Guerino, Paige, and Sabol, “Prisoners in 2010,” Appendix Table 13.

[12]West and Sabol, “Prisoners in 2007,” Appendix Table 8; Guerino, Harrison, Sabol, “Prisoners in 2010,” Table 15. International rates of incarceration can be found in Roy Walmsley, International Centre for Prison Studies, King’s College London, “World Prison Population List (eighth edition),” January 2009, http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/law/research/icps/downloads/wppl-8th_41.pdf (accessed July 22, 2011).

[13]Table A.1, “Gender and Age of State Prisoners, December 31, 2009,” in Appendix: Additional Tables below. We calculated state prisoners by age and gender from data obtained from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) for 2009. See Methodology section above. The gender of state prisoners in 2010 comes from estimates in Guerino, Harrison, and Sabol, “Prisoners in 2010,” Appendix Table 16A. The differences in the gender demographics for older state prisoners compared to the total state prison population may be a result of the smaller number of states included in the NCRP data than that used by the BJS, as well as the methodology used by BJS to calculate its population estimates.

[14]Table A.2, “Race and Age of State Prisoners, December 31, 2009” in Appendix: Additional Tables, below. We calculated state prisoner populations by age and race using data obtained from National Corrections Reporting Program for 2009. See Methodology section, above. The race of state prisoners in 2010 comes from Guerino, Harrison and Sabol “Prisoners in 2010,” Appendix Table 16A. The differences in the racial demographics for older state prisoners compared to the total state prison population may be a result of the smaller number of states included in the NCRP data than that used by BJS as well as the methodology used by BJS to calculate its population estimates.

[15] See Table A.3, in Appendix: Additional Tables, below. Table A.4 in Appendix: Additional Tables provides the number of prisoners by age at year-end 2009 in each of the states reporting data to the NCRP.

[16]Data provided to Human Rights Watch in email correspondence with David Runnels, California Correctional Health Care Services, May 6, 2011.

[17]Unpublished data obtained through Freedom of Information Act request by Human Rights Watch in email correspondence with New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, June 13, 2011.

[18]Data provided to Human Rights Watch by Maureen O’Keefe, Colorado Department of Corrections, March 25, 2011.

[19]State of Florida Correctional Medical Authority, “2009-2010 Annual Report and Report on Aging Inmates,” December 2010, http://www.doh.state.fl.us/cma/reports/AnnualRpt2009-10FINAL.pdf (accessed November 29, 2011).

[20]Tim Carr, Georgia Department of Corrections, “Age and mental health trends in the Georgia prison system, 1980-2011,” dated June 24, 2011, unpublished internal analysis on file with Human Rights Watch.

[21]Missouri Department of Corrections, “Annual Report 2010,” http://doc.mo.gov/documents/publications/AR2010.pdf (accessed November 29, 2011), p. 3. See also, Missouri Department of Corrections, “A Profile of the Institutional and Supervised Offender Population on June 30, 2010,” December 30, 2010, http://doc.mo.gov/documents/publications/Offender%20Profile%20FY10.pdf (accessed November 29, 2011); Jessica Pupovac, “Missouri’s aging inmate population straining state budget,” Columbia Missourian, January 27, 2011, http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2011/01/27/caring-old-cons-missouris-aging-inmate-population-straining-state-budget/ (accessed December 29, 2011).

[22]Data provided to Human Rights Watch by Francisco Pineda, warden, Hocking Correctional Facility, Nelsonville, Ohio, during Human Rights Watch visit, May 1, 2011.

[23]Gregory T. Geisler, “The Cost of Correctional Health Care: A Correctional Institution Inspection Committee Summary of Ohio’s Prison Health Care System,” 2010, http://www.ciic.state.oh.us/download-document/222-cost-of-correctional-health-care-2010.html (accessed January 12, 2012), p.9.

[24]Williams, “The Aging Inmate Population,” p. 9.

[25]Virginia Department of Corrections and Parole Board, “A Balanced Approach: Report on Geriatric Offenders,” 2008, http://sfc.virginia.gov/pdf/Public%20Safety/September%2024%20mtg/Final%20Geriatric% 20Report%20for%20Item%20387-B%20incl.%20Ex.pdf (accessed December 12, 2011), p. 3.