America’s prison population is getting older. Here’s where Mass. stacks up

The U.S. is getting older — and the nation’s prison population is aging even faster, raising concerns about the public health costs of caring for older inmates, and the wisdom of keeping people behind bars who are at a low risk of offending again.

Between 1991 and 2021, the percentage of those in state and federal prison populations aged 55 and older increased from 3% to 15%, according to a report released earlier this month by the Northampton-based Prison Policy Initiative, which tracks trends across the corrections system.

“Prisons are unhealthy places for anyone of any age, but keeping older adults locked up is particularly dangerous,” the report’s author, Emily Widra, wrote.

In Massachusetts, the average age of an incarcerated man was 44, while the average age of an incarcerated woman was 42, according to a May 2022 report by the state Department of Correction. The nation’s median age, meanwhile, is 38.9, according to U.S. Census data.

As of January 2022, incarcerated individuals aged 40 and older accounted for 58% of the commonwealth’s prison population, state data show. There were 195 inmates who were aged 60 and older at the time of their incarceration and 554 who were aged 50-59 at the time of their incarceration, state data show.

The new research highlights the public health risks of incarceration for older adults, noting that a “robust body of research shows that incarceration itself accelerates aging: people face more chronic and life-threatening illnesses earlier than we would expect outside of prison, and physiological signs of aging occur in people younger than expected.”

The report also concludes that “years of limited resources, inaccessibility, and understaffing in prison healthcare have created a situation in which each year spent in prison takes two years off of an individual’s life expectancy. The same scarcity of prison healthcare resources that jeopardizes older people’s health is not just ineffective — it’s also exorbitantly expensive.”

The new research also found that states and the federal governments “spend increasingly more money on consistently inadequate healthcare for their growing populations of older adults.

“While most studies on the steep costs of incarcerating older people date back at least a decade, their findings are consistently dramatic,” Widra wrote.

In addition, older adults pose the lowest risk of being arrested again once they leave custody, the research showed. People aged 65 and older were the least likely of any age group to be re-arrested within five years of leaving custody.

“Decades of research reinforces these findings: formerly incarcerated older adults are among the least likely to be re-arrested, re-convicted, and reincarcerated,” Widra wrote.

The report points to years of policy failures, including “tough on crime” policies that filled jails, resulting in people serving longer and longer sentences, as one of the drivers of the aging population.

“Longer and harsher sentences top the list of the most obvious mechanisms by which the national prison population exploded in the 1990s and 2000s, but they also created the problem of today’s aging prison population: many of the people who received these sentences are still behind bars now that they are 20 or 30 years older,” Widra wrote.

In Massachusetts, the state’s total prison population declined, with a 45% drop between 2013 and 2022, state data showed.

While officials acknowledged the potential for a “bounce-up” after the pandemic, the state Department of Correction’s report said “the overarching decline of the MA DOC is largely attributed to successful reentry efforts, reduction in recidivism rates, implementation of the 2018 criminal justice bill, partnerships with Massachusetts Sheriffs, as well as other initiatives and collaborations with state leadership and community stake holders.”


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