NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Growing Old in the Big House

August 27, 2003

As states try to cope with the growing costs of prisons during tight financial times, one expensive problem sticks out: older, sick and dying inmates. And the problem is only expected to grow.

It is a huge problem for state governments that are cash-strapped, says Ronald Aday, author of the 2003 book "Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections." Health care, work assignments, copayments, nutritional requirements, concerns about victimization, end of life care and appropriate staffing are concerns that will have to be addressed, he says. The task is a daunting one.

Prisons have had elderly inmates for years. But aging baby boomers behind bars signal new challenges:

  • In 2002, there were 120,933 prisoners 50 and over in the nation's prisons, more than double the number in 1992, says the Criminal Justice Institute of Middleton, Conn.
  • That is 8.6 percent of all inmates, up from 5.7 percent in 1992.
  • Some have wings or units just for older prisoners, others have entire geriatric prisons, while many have hospices.
  • States are making greater use of medical parole and early release, and some prisons are saving space for more prison cemeteries.

A report by the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst's Office says elderly inmates cost two to three times more to care for than do younger ones. It notes that the National Center of Institutions and Alternatives estimates incarceration costs for an elderly inmate are $69,000 a year, compared with a national average of $22,000 for all inmates.

Source: Patrick McMahon, "Aging inmates present prison crisis," USA Today, August 10, 2003.

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