Old Behind Bars
The Aging Prison Population in the United States
Copyright c 2012 Human Rights Watch
All rights reserved.Printed in the United States of America
ISBN: 1-56432-859-7;Cover design by Rafael Jimenez
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Life in prison can challenge anyone, but it can be particularly hard
for people whose bodies and minds are being whittled away by age.
Prisons in the United States contain an ever growing number of
aging men and women who cannot readily climb stairs, haul
themselves to the top bunk, or walk long distances to meals or the
pill line; whose old bones suffer from thin mattresses and winter’s
cold; who need wheelchairs, walkers, canes, portable oxygen, and
hearing aids; who cannot get dressed, go to the bathroom, or bathe
without help; and who are incontinent, forgetful, suffering chronic
illnesses, extremely ill, and dying.
Human Rights Watch presents in this report new statistics that testify unequivocally to
the aging of the US prison population. Among our findings:
1)Between 2007 and 2010, as noted above,
the number of sentenced state and federal
prisoners age 65 or older increased by 63
percent, while the overall population of
sentenced prisoners grew only 0.7 percent in
the same period. There are now 26,200
prisoners age 65 or older.
2) Between 1995 and 2010, the number of state
and federal prisoners age 55 or older nearly
quadrupled (increasing 282 percent), while
the number of all prisoners grew by less than
half (increasing 42 percent). There are now
124,400 prisoners age 55 or older.
3)As of 2010, 8 percent of sentenced state
and federal prisoners are age 55 or older,
more than doubling from 3 percent in 1995.
• One in ten state prisoners is serving a
4) Eleven percent of federal prisoners age 51
or older are serving sentences ranging from 30 years to life
THE CONTINUING PROBLEM OF
AMERICA’S AGING PRISON POPULATION
AND THE SEARCH FOR A COST-EFFECTIVE
AND SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE MEANS OF
The United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in
the world with more than 2.1 million inmates,6 about 10% of whom
are over fifty-five years-of-age.7 Fifty-five is a critical age; at first
glance it seems too young to be characterized as “elderly,” but prisoners
are an unusual group.8 Unsurprisingly, prison inmates often have
a history of drug and alcohol abuse.9 If an inmate comes from an impoverished
background, he may have had only limited access to
health care prior to incarceration.10 Along with the rigors of prison
life, these factors give many inmates a physiological age ten to fifteen
years older than their contemporaries.11 Most of the literature that
considers the health-damaging effects of prison life in combination
with the lifestyle and poor health care of many inmates prior to incarceration
suggests that age fifty-five or even fifty be considered elderly