Health Concerns and Elderly Prisoners


This write up examines the socio-demographic characteristics, health concerns, and the plight of elderly prisoners in U.S. prisons. Many have rated the current health care condition as poor as individuals use special equipment to assist in their movement and respiration. The paper concludes with recommendations and discussion on the effects of management of prison and the future policies.

Elderly prisoners represent the fastest growing population of the federal and state prisons. This aging inmate population has presented new challenges for U.S. According to the United States Justice department’s Bureau of Justice data, the population of U.S. inmates has grown from 319,000 in 1980 to approximately 1.5 million in 2005. Elderly population is the fastest growing segment of the total inmate population. In addition, the report by the National Institute of Corrections in 2004 posits that the population aging to 50 years and above rose by 17.6% between 1991 and 2001. Others estimate that the elder prisoner population has grown by up to 75% in the last couple of decade. This trend, according to experts, is expected to grow.

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Experts at Reasons for the Increase in the Elderly Population

Experts point at various reasons for the increase in the elderly population. Many are of the opinion that these reflect the general aging society. The last decade has seen a rapid increase in the aging population that has, hence, been reflected on the aging inmate population in U.S. The get-touch-on-crime reforms of 1980’s and 90’s have contributed to this aging population rise. For U.S., the challenges associated with this aging population are real and growing. The varied definitions, given to aging inmates in U.S., are a pointer that this population is a challenge. While Ohio limits the age to 50, Minnesota sets it at 55, and Michigan and Colorado consider it at 60 and 65 years and above respectively (Whitehead and Jones, 2008).

Indeed, from the analysis of the experts, it is clear that prisoner’s age goes faster than any other member of the community. Empirical evidence shows that, on average, an inmate is 7 to 10 years older than their chronological age. As such, a 50-year-old inmate experiences age related health problems of a 60-year-old member of the society. The experience can be attributed to inaccessibility of health care, substance abuse, and poor diets. Florida department of Corrections health services office (2000) observed that two-thirds prisoners had their initial significant health care experience in prison. Stress accelerates the aging among these inmates. This includes stress of incarceration, which includes lack of support systems and mistrust in fellow inmates. These debilitating environments, according to Dr. Thomas, chairman of the Department of Surgery at Nova Southeastern University, pose a health problem to inmates.

According to Jonathan Turley, an elderly prisoner will have, on average, three chronic illnesses in his life term. National Institute of correction has listed arthritis, ulcer disease, hypertension, and prostate complication as the common diseases among inmates. Others include hepatitis C, diabetes, and cancer. The U.S. financial burden of adequate health care for the aged inmates is staggering. In 1997, the health care for the elderly inmates was $14.80 a day, which was nearly three times that of younger prisoners. For housing, the elderly spend $67,000 annually, while the young spend $22,000. As this aging population grows, the cost is expected to grow. Experts project costs to grow from $27 million in 2008 to over $56 million in the year 2015.

Besides addressing the general needs of the elderly inmates, the U.S. government should address specific needs of this population. First, it should adapt prison facilities that are designed with age in mind. The activities done there are not the normal activities done by the community. A study, conducted on 120 elderly female inmates in California, shows that 69% admit that at least one activity of the daily living was very difficult. Beside, many inmates depend on the younger ones to get around. Elderly prisoners are vulnerable to abuse and predation. According to the United Nations report (2009), lack of protection to elderly prisoners, who are vulnerable to threats of assault, leads to emotional stress and other complications such as chronic or terminal illness.

Programs on Aging Issues and Wellness

According to survey by United Nations (2009), at least 15 of the 44 states indicated that they undertook supervised recreational programs for the elderly inmates. Other states have established educational programs on aging issues and wellness. The Ohio’s Hocking Correctional Facility has established a program duped “50+ and Aging program” aimed at addressing the psychological, physical, and social needs of the elderly inmates. It entails activities such as chair aerobics, GED classes, adult basic education, and specializes on recreational options like the bingo, horseshoes, shuffleboard, and walking program. This program also provides for case managers to assist the elderly inmates who are applying for medical and social security benefits. The state of Pennsylvania has instituted inmate health care education programs and provided dietary healthy heart food line, with low fat and high cellulose. Another program that has been established by the states includes specialized housing. As such, 16 of them have provided separate housing for the aged (Burbank, 2006).

The Minnesota Correctional Facility has provided housing for the 55 years and above aged inmates with chronic illness. It has also provided 16 hours coverage by licensed nurses to these elderly and sick inmates. States that do not offer designated Geriatric units have specialized “chronic infirm” beds that are dedicated to the elderly inmates. Approximately half of these states offer hospice care for these prisoners. These include even Angola state Penitentiary in Louisiana, which was once termed as the bloodiest in U.S. The debate on aging prison population has gone beyond the walls of the prison (Aday, 2003).

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Across U.S., academics, correction agencies, and policymakers are considering a released program to the elderly on medical grounds. Some states have already adopted the program and releases terminally ill prisoners, although many say the programs do not work due to subjectivity and bureaucracy. In the state of Georgia, some elderly prisoners have been pardoned on medical reprieve, which is a supervised program for prisoners who have reformed. The program proponents argue that released inmates will be eligible for Medicare, veteran’s benefits that will relieve the state financial burden on medical care. Critics of the program, however, argue that cost saving from early release must be weighed against other factors such as public safety and transfer costs to other government programs. According to Aday (2003), elderly inmates care is a waste of funds, as the state is burdened with medical costs to people who pose no risk to the community. Others are of the opinion that the costs savings that are associated with the early release programs should be used in assisting in the community re-entry transition.


In conclusion, as the American inmates continue to grow older and sicker, the costs associated will continue to increase. While most states have started to address the demands of the increasingly aging population through varied programs, many experts warn that unless proper measures are taken, a potential crisis is looming down the road. Budgetary allocation on the care of the elderly inmates should be increased to cater for this populace. This financing should also be extended to cater for specialized diets. As U.S. try to strategize on the rapidly increasing number of aged inmates, they continue suffering, getting sicker, calling for more care. As such, a bid to mitigate this proper planning is needed now.

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