As Aging Prisoners’ Health Woes Increase, Which Inmates Are “Geriatric”?


Some studies have started to show medical evidence behind the idea that at around age 50 prisoners start to contend with health problems more often associated with people far older, reports the Marshall Project. The question is salient as the federal Bureau of Prisons tries to define who counts as an “aging” prisoner. Between 1992 and 2001, the number of state and federal inmates 50 or older rose from 41,486 to 113,358.

State budgets have been hit as these prisoners get older and need treatment for serious diagnoses like cancer and heart disease. Programs with names like “medical parole” and “compassionate release” have allowed low-risk prisoners to get out early while shifting the cost burden to families or federal programs. “Once they reach that point, it's kind of too late,” says KiDeuk Kim of the Urban Institute who argues that prisons need to invest more in preventive medicine. Researchers and corrections are hampered by a lack of uniform definitions for terms such as “old,” “elderly,” “aging” and “geriatric.” When the Vera Institute surveyed state prison systems, they found that 15 states used age 50 as a cutoff for the definition of “older,” five used 55, four used 60, two used 65 and one used 70.

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