Jones & Bartlett Learning Public Health Blog

    The Elderly and Mass Incarceration: A U.S. Atrocity

    Posted by Susanne Walker on Feb 28, 2020 1:53:30 PM

    By Dr. Patti R. Rose, Ed.D, author of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Context, Controversies, and Solutions

     At some point, if we experience longevity, being an elderly person will be the outcome.  After living a productive life, raising families, working and all that comes along with the responsibilities, joy and pain of life, there comes a time when the golden years are upon us. This should be a time for leisure, reflection, work, if one prefers, or whatever one deems as a joyous finale, as the progression towards transition out of this life becomes inevitable. Unfortunately, the graceful, elder experience can be quite a challenging one in the United States. Health-wise, there are significant issues, as although quantity of life exists in terms of longevity, quality of life, in the latter years of one’s existence, becomes a problem.  Some of the concerns are chronic illnesses (which the elderly suffer from disproportionately relative to younger members of the U.S. population), overuse of pharmaceuticals and the ensuing problems associated with said drugs, nursing homes and the poor treatment received by the elderly in many of them, and finally, mass incarceration of the elderly, the focus of this piece.  Although none of these are the case for everyone, there are too many elderly people that experience these outcomes.
    Mass incarceration and the elderly

    The reality of this situation is seldom discussed and is daunting.  According to Gibson (2019), historian Elizabeth Hinton states in her book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, that “The War on Crime and the War on Drugs are two of the largest policy failures in the History of the United States.” 

    The numbers of people incarcerated today, in the United States are staggering, and the racial and ethnic disparity is glaring. Gibson (2019) states further:

    "Today, roughly 2 million people are incarcerated in this country, 66% of them African American or Latino. The United States, with 5 percent of the global population but 25 percent of its prisoners, is home to the largest prison system in the world, with an incarceration rate that is five to 10 times that of peer nations." 

    This unfortunate situation of mass incarceration has also impacted the elderly in the United States. In general, when one thinks of the elderly population, imprisonment is not necessarily what comes to mind, in mass numbers.  As one ages, there is a tendency toward chronic diseases and other concerns that would seemingly suggest that alternatives should be considered before warehousing the elderly behind prison bars, in confinement. This is particularly true if they are not in a physical or mental condition to commit further crimes. The reality is that the opposite is occurring. Per the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):

    "In 1981, there were 8,853 state and federal prisoners age 55 and older. Today, that number stands at 124,900, and experts project that by 2030 this number will be over 400,000, amounting to over one-third of prisoners in the United States.  In other words, the elderly prison population is expected to increase by 4,400% over this fifty-year time span. This astronomical projection does not even include prisoners ages 50-54, for which data over time is harder to access.“

    This warrants consideration of the types of crimes that the elderly have a propensity to commit.  Chettiar (2012) states the following regarding the types of crimes the elderly are likely to commit:

    “Further, most aging prisoners are not incarcerated for murder, but are in prison for low-level crimes. For example, in Texas, 65% of prisoners age 50 and older are incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property, and other nonviolent crimes.“

    The reality is that if a person commits a crime, there are laws that require his/her imprisonment. If he/she is found guilty of doing so, but perhaps the frailty of age should be taken into consideration, particularly if he/she is unable to commit the crime he/she was accused of, or any other crimes as the progression of age takes place.  Furthermore, “As is the case with the overall American prison population, America’s elderly prisoners are overwhelmingly male. Women make up a mere 6% of aging prisoners.” (Chettier, 2012).“

    This means that many of the women are left without their spouses, and children and grandchildren lose their fathers and grandfathers, in significant numbers, relative to women in the United States, which is similar to the loss that young families experience when men are incarcerated in mass. Since most of the elderly prisoners who are incarcerated are men, this creates an imbalance in society and an undeniable dismantling of the family, particularly when individuals are supposed to be experiencing their golden years and a sense of respect from society for their wisdom, including mistakes, that others can learn from. This is especially true  if there were alternative options for the elderly who commit non-violent crimes, rather than mass incarceration.  Some may argue that if one commits a crime he/she must do the time, which is one way of looking at this problem. However, besides the fact that consideration should seriously be given to age and the impact that it has on the body and the minds of individuals, it is a tremendously costly endeavor as many will need special care to tend to their health care needs and daily living activities as they age further.  To what extent, based on the nature of the crime, should elderly people be forgiven, paroled or given other options, which take into consideration that they are nearing the end of life?  Should they, perhaps, be given the opportunity to impart wisdom, based on their mistakes, rather than languish in prison cells for extended periods of time, including until death?  These questions are worthy of consideration in terms of compassion for the elderly and ultimately the costs to society in a number of ways. 

          Respect, obedience and caring for aging parents are all key aspects of a concept known as filial piety,  based on the notion of Confucianism. Providing the utmost care for the elderly, is not such a familiar concept in the United States. This traditional concept is definitely one which warrants serious consideration. Furthermore, mass incarceration of the elderly must end.  Medical and general parole must be a serious consideration for each elder in prison along with compassionate release and community service as priority options.  If elders have committed non-violent crimes in their golden years, perhaps it would be best to have them provide lectures at schools to younger people about their mistakes or crimes and their consequences. We should not see fear in the eyes of our elders based on even the remote possibility that imprisonment could be the way that they spend their last days.  Of course, the elderly should not commit crimes.  However, there must be a way to have them transition from this life, with the utmost care rather than imprisonment, with love and care from their family members and society, and to seek the wisdom of the elders based on their life experiences, including what is deemed good and bad. Their experiential insight is a useful tool towards the progression of society in the United States.


         American Civil Liberties Union. At America’s expense: The mass incarceration of the elderly. Available at

    Chettiar, I. (2012). At America’s Expense:  The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.  NELLCO Legal Scholarship Repository. New York University Public Law and Legal Theory: New York University school of Law

    Gibson, L. (2019). Color and Incarceration. Harvard Magazine, 122 (1), pgs. 40-45

    About the Author

    Patti RosePatti R. Rose, MPH, Ed.D. - President and Founder, Rose Consulting, Miami, Florida

    Dr. Patti Rose acquired her Master's Degree (MPH) in Health Services Administration from the Yale University School of Public Health followed by her Doctorate (Ed.D.) in Health Education from Columbia University, Teachers College. She is the President and Founder of Rose Consulting through which she offers speaking engagements, workshops and consultation in the United States and abroad. She is author of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Context, Controversies, and Solutions, Second Edition and Cultural Competency for Health Administration and Public Health


    Topics: Patti R. Rose, health disparities, mass incarceration, Patti Rose, elderly, health equity