Home Career Surge in Elderly Prisoners Poses Challenges for Nation’s Prisons

Surge in Elderly Prisoners Poses Challenges for Nation’s Prisons


By Michael Pittaro, assistant professor, criminal justice at American Military University

Prisons are, in many respects, a microcosm of society. In 2030, the last baby boomer will turn 65 and one in five Americans will be older than 65. This aging population is also represented within the nation’s prisons system.

A comprehensive 2014 study by the Urban Institute found that the number of prisoners age 50 or older experienced a 330 percent increase from 1994 to 2011. The study examined the growth patterns in the largest correctional system in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This study concluded that the growth rate of older prisoners—especially those 65 and older—is expected to increase significantly.

This increase in elderly prisoners will not only consume a considerable percentage of the federal prison budget, but it will also require that correctional officers receive training about how to care for and protect elderly prisoners.

The Challenge of Older Prisoners
Old PrisonerAccording to a 2012 study by Human Rights Watch, “prisons were never designed or intended to be geriatric facilities.” Compared to their counterparts in the community, older prisoners have a greater incidence of illness, disease, disability, and mental health diagnoses. One powerful excerpt from the Urban Institute’s study notes that elderly prisoners tend to have the same physiological age and health concerns as individuals who are 10 to 15 years older than them.

Need for Officer Training to Protect Elderly Prisoners
One area of concern is that corrections officials have limited, if any, training in elder care. Older prisoners are often exploited and subjected to physical and sexual victimization by younger prisoners. Such victimization increases the probability and likelihood of successful lawsuits against prisons for failing to take precautionary steps to adequately protect elderly prisoners.

Recidivism Rates of Older Prisoners
A 2014 study by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that older prisoners are substantially less likely to engage in additional criminal behavior after they are released from prison than younger prisoners. Numerous studies have reaffirmed that age is one of the most reliable predictors of recidivism.

One potential solution is to release nonviolent older offenders, particularly those with diminished cognitive or physical abilities. Most elderly offenders pose very little threat to public safety and can serve as a vital release valve for an overcrowded correctional system. Developing a comprehensive understanding of the public safety risk posed by older offenders is an ideal first step in devising policies without compromising public safety.

Michael PittaroAbout the Author: Professor Michael Pittaro is a 26-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of setting. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 12 years while also serving as an author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in public safety/criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.

Pittaro is the author of multiple university-level texts and scholarly journals, including the United States’ only criminal justice quick-study reference guide, and “Crimes of the Internet,” an anthology of cybercrime research. Pittaro is a member of the International Editorial Advisory Board for the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences and assists on the International Journal of Cyber Criminology. He is also a peer reviewer for the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs, and a program committee member for the South Asian Society of Criminology and Victimology.




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  1. The Jefferson City Correctional Center, within the Missouri Department of Corrections has been a leader in the care of elderly offenders, which began as a pilot project in January 2011, and is now a modified living unit, the Enhanced Care Unit. The ECU is dedicated to safe, dignified assistive living for elderly and moderately impaired offenders, age 50 and older. Staff work cooperatively to care for our elderly offenders with limited medical, mental health and dementia related issues that have created a diminished lifestyle within the prison environment, involving; classification, medical, mental health, custody and offender daily living assistants to provide a least restrictive environment, yet has secure placement, and does not require 24 hour a day medical care. Referrals can be made by any staff that observes the offender on a regular basis. Benefits include daily well-being checks and interaction with medical and mental health (and is increasing as additional staff are provided), planned activiities, appropriate exercise and socialization, DLA’s assigned to assist with mobility to meals, visits etc., activities, and other daily living requirements (grooming, dressing, laundry, correspondence, etc. Based on our experiences, the ECU minimally impacts normal operations in and out of the housing unit, with benefits that far outweigh any changes that may have been implemented. ECU participants receive more attention, their needs are better met, while providing them more movement, and access to programs and jobs, than would be available to them in infirmary care or typical general population housing units. Custody staff has less security issues, and these offenders feel safe, and less likely to be victimized. Staff and offenders are working together to achieve a common goal, while remaining cost effective in our efforts to reduce hospital beds, thus creating transition from infirmary care. Thanks, Donna Cayer

    1. Good morning Donna –

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to my article. Very much appreciated! Your response is a perfect example as to why we (prison administrators / CJ Professionals) should be collaborating further. I would venture to guess that most prison administrators are unaware of the progress that you’ve made in regards to your ECU. We need to learn from each other as far as studying what works, what sorta works, and what doesn’t work. Why reinvent the wheel, right? Thanks so much for responding! I’m happy to report that I learned something new today. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

      – Mike

  2. Thank you Mike for your perspective. You and I will converse in the near future.
    Have a very pleasant Thanksgiving.
    Former Police Officer, licensed California Private Investigator.


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