New York’s prison population has aged rapidly in the last 15 years. Even as the number of people locked up fell by 23 percent, those 50 or older ballooned nearly 85 percent, reaching 9,200, reports Truth-Out.org. This echoes a national trend of the elderly being the fastest growing part of the prison population. By 2030, they will number 400,000, or nearly one-third of U.S. inmates. While 50 may not seem old, most medical experts agree that incarcerated people age much faster than those on the outside. They suffer higher rates of chronic illness and conditions related to drug and alcohol abuse, such as liver disease and hepatitis. New York prisoners aged 51 to 60 have the highest rate of mortality due to illness of any age group behind bars.
Most older prisoners are serving long sentences for committing violent crimes. The state parole board typically refuses to release them because of their original offense. “The parole board is co-opted by the punishment paradigm,” says Mujahid Farid, who founded a group called Release Aging People in Prison, or RAPP. says. “Even though the elderly have the lowest of risk of committing a crime upon release, they are being denied similarly to everyone else.” RAPP’s slogan — “If the Risk is Low, Let Them Go” — draws on the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s own data. Only one percent of inmates released after the age of 65 return to prison, compared with a 40-60 percent return rate for the general prison population. In 2011, the state legislature told the parole board to establish written guidelines that include rational standards that measure a potential parolee’s current risk to society.