In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Aging Prison Population

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Defining Older Inmates
  • Challenges in Classifying a Prisoner as Geriatric
  • Consequences of Incarceration for Older Prisoners
  • Older Prisoner Typology
  • Contributors to the Growth in Older Prisoners
  • Institutional Misconduct and Adjustment
  • Prisoner Reentry Considerations
  • Policy Implications

Criminology The Aging Prison Population
Samuel Scaggs
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0246


Since the 1980s, the proportion of state and federal prisoners who are older has experienced unprecedented changes to the extent that they currently represent the fastest-growing inmate population in the United States. This increase has become an important policy concern for government officials and correctional administrators due to older prisoners’ health-care and confinement expenses. Consequently, politicians are increasingly under pressure to implement innovative policies to respond to the growth in this low-risk, albeit costly, prisoner population. At the same time, correctional administrators in several states are planning for the increased use of nursing services. The study of older prisoners involves scholarly works from an amalgam of disciplines including criminology, demography, economics, gerontology, public health, social work, and sociology. To study aging in prison, researchers must first understand the conceptual definitions ascribed to being older in prison and the typology of older prisoners. They must also gain a sense of social and demographic contributors to the aging inmate population over time. These explanations lend themselves to a description of health-care issues associated with an increasingly aging prisoner population. Since older prisoners are similar to their younger counterparts in that many will return to the community, the reader must also understand reentry issues among older ex-prisoners. Finally, the growth in the proportion of older prisoners has been followed by an array of policy recommendations to address the growth in older prisoners, meet the needs of prisoners aging inside correctional institutions, and assist older ex-prisoners with their transition back to the community.

General Overviews

The sources in this section provide a general overview of the aging inmate population. To illustrate the context behind aging inmate population, Carson and Sabol 2016 provides several trend analyses in a Bureau of Justice Statistics report summary of the changes in the proportion of older prisoners and prison age distribution from 1993 to 2013. As one of the first edited texts to study the “older offender,” Chaneles and Burnett 1989 introduces several chapters which highlight trends and patterns in elder offending, institutional adjustment and aging in prison, older prison health considerations, and reentry issues among older released prisoners. Aday 2003 provides a general review of several topics germane to older prisoners, including a discussion of their unique characteristics compared to younger inmates, institutional adjustment, applications of criminological theory to explain criminal behavior in older age, and policy implications of an aging prisoner population. Aday and Krabill 2011 describes several of these same topics as they pertain to older female prisoners. Drawing upon American and UK research, Wahidin and Cain 2006 explores the unique needs and experiences of older prisoners. Hurley 2014 examines similar issues as past research but also contributes sections on victimization among older prisoners and the ethics of care for an aging inmate population.

  • Aday, Ronald H. 2003. Aging prisoners: Crisis in American corrections. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    This text provides a multidisciplinary approach to study the various issues associated with aging in prison. Selecting from medical, gerontological, psychological, and sociological literatures, this text takes an in-depth dive into explanations for criminality in old age, elder prison typologies, prison adjustment issues, health-care considerations, and unique experiences. This citation is meant to be a précis of aging prisoners for academics and practitioners from various disciplines and fields.

  • Aday, Ronald H., and Jennifer J. Krabill. 2011. Women aging in prison: A neglected population in the correctional system. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

    This text expands on Aday 2003. It explores prison adjustment, health and fear of death, social ties outside prison, prevalence of intimate partner violence victimization, and personal transformations among elder female prisoners.

  • Carson, E. Ann, and William J. Sabol. 2016. Aging of the state prison population, 1993–2013. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    Examines demographic changes in state prisoners by separate age groups. The figures in this report indicate that the percentage of sentenced prisoners who are age fifty-five or older has increased 400 percent in the past since 1993. This report also provides a general summary of the contributors of the aging prisoner growth from 1993 to 2013. Specifically, the authors contend that an increase in admissions among older persons and average time served due to violent offense were main drivers of this growth in state prisons during this period.

  • Chaneles, Sol, and Cathleen Burnett, eds. 1989. Older offenders: Current trends. New York: Hawthorne Press.

    This edited text includes chapters that empirically examine arrest patterns, sentencing outcomes, and institutional experiences among older adults and prisoner populations across different states.

  • Hurley, Martha H. 2014. Aging in prison: The integration of research and practice. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

    This text integrates sources from several disciplines to examine the practical issues associates with incarcerated long-term or elder inmates. Contains sections on the cost of medical and mental health issues, costs of incarceration, and victimization. Summarizes scholarly work the debate around slowing the growth in older prisoner population, geriatric housing units, and compassionate release programs. Akin to Aday 2003, this text is meant for a diverse audience of readers.

  • Wahidin, Azrini, and Maureen Cain, eds. 2006. Ageing, crime and society. Portland, OR: Willan.

    This edited text paints a broader portrait of issues associated with older age, crime, and society. The editors provide some chapters that focus on both offending and victimization in old age. Includes chapters by Judith Greene, Azrini Wahidin, Ronald Aday, and Gaynor Bramhall that provide a theoretical and policy-driven research agenda for studying criminal behavior among older adults and issues associated with long-terms servers.

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