A Growing Number Of Older Americans Are Spending Their Final Days Behind Bars

Let's explore a couple of the important factors at play. A Growing Number Of Older Americans Are Spending Their Final Days Behind Bars Giphy

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Criminal justice is a controversial topic that has fueled debates for generations. But no matter which side of the issue you find yourself, there’s no denying the fact that the number of older folks doing time in prison has steadily increased in recent decades … and many of them won’t make it out alive.

Here’s what the statistics show:

  • In 1991, only about 3% of the U.S. prison population was above the age of 55.
  • Thirty years later, that percentage had ballooned to roughly 15%.
  • Between 2020 and 2022, the number of inmates over 55 grew from 166,000 to 186,000.

Exploring the causes

There are several significant reasons for this trend, including some that have little to do with how crime is prosecuted in the U.S. The average life expectancy has gone up over time and as the Baby Boomers age, the number of elderly Americans continues to grow.

But there are also two more direct reasons that so many more older Americans are locked up.

First, longer prison sentences and the world’s highest incarceration rate means inmates of all ages are simply living out much of their lives in prisons. And secondly, research shows that older Americans (particularly those experiencing homelessness or mental health issues) are being locked up at a higher rate than in the past.

Examining the effects

Even with the prison system’s healthcare expenses skyrocketing in recent years, inmates get sick and die on average at a younger age than the general population. One report showed that a 59-year-old behind bars can expect to develop diseases with the same frequency as a 75-year-old who isn’t in prison.

That’s why activists are not only calling for prison reform, but also for investments in programs designed to help those most at risk.

Chris Agee
Chris Agee May 7th, 2024
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