Aging in the Criminal Justice System

By Tina Maschi

Aging in the criminal justice system, especially in prison, is not just aging as usual. Between 1995 and 2010, the U.S. prison population age 55 and older grew at six times the rate of the overall prison population (Human Rights Watch [HRW], 2012). This dramatic increase was not the result of a surge in crimes committed by older adults, but rather the logical outcome of the 1980s “tough-on-crime” policies and stricter sentencing laws, such as “Three Strikes, You’re Out” and “Truth-in-Sentencing” (Rikard & Rosenberg, 2007). With these policies and laws came longer mandatory prison terms and reduced opportunities for parole. Currently, adults age 50 and older comprise about 12% (n=186,000) of the 2.3 million general prison population (Sabol & Couture, 2008).

Today, the U.S. correctional system is struggling to meet the specialized needs of this costly and ever-increasing population that it was never designed to handle (HRW, 2012). Due to a process referred to as accelerated aging, the health of a 50-year-old prisoner is more akin to that of a 65-year-old adult living outside of prison (Wilson & Barboza, 2010). The rapid decline of older prisoners’ health may be attributed to their high-risk personal histories including trauma histories and poor health practices. It is also undoubtedly attributed to the stressful conditions of prison confinement such as prolonged exposure to overcrowding, social deprivation, and prison violence (Dawes, 2009; Maschi et al., 2010; Stojkovic, 2007). The poor conditions of prison confinement increase the risk of early onset of serious physical and mental illnesses including dementia (Maschi, Kwak, Ko, & Morrissey, 2012).

Gerontological social workers who work in or intersect with the criminal justice system are well-positioned to provide the expertise in practice and policy advocacy needed to address the human rights and social justice issues that are adversely impacting the well-being of aging prisoners during prison and community reintegration (Snyder, van Wormer, Chada, & Jaggers, 2008). Unfortunately, there are not enough of them yet to meet the demand.

Only about 4% (n=35) of U.S. correctional facilities provide geriatric-specific programming to promote older adults’ health and well-being (Thivierge & Thompson, 2007). Older prisoners often do not benefit from prison programming targeting younger prisoners’ needs such as vocational and employment programs (Mesurier, 2011). Even the discharge process of older prisoners needs special attention (Williams & Abraldes, 2010). As one elderly prisoner noted, community reintegration is often a double-edged sword because many older adults poised to exit prison are not being well-prepared: “You don’t need a survey to know you have a lot of men over 50 getting ready to go home, with no money. No place to stay. And no one trying to understand this part of the problem. I earn $15 a month. I go home in 9 months. I have no family to turn to. I don’t want to come back to prison, after doing 7 years. I am trying to stay positive. I pray. I go to see the psych for one-on-one and I try to look on the bright side. But the reality is, when I hit the street, I am on my own.”

Although the situation seems bleak, promising practices are emerging. Geriatric-specific prison programs that incorporate interdisciplinary collaboration, inmate peer support, and advocacy for prison and community reintegration programming are being implemented in correctional systems in a few states such as New York, Ohio, Nevada, and California (Davidson & Rowe, 2011; Harrison, 2006; Ohio Department of Corrections, 2011; Ubelacker, 2011). These programs often include social workers, doctors and nurses, law enforcement, and lawyers (Maschi et al., 2012). Gerontological social workers interested in working with this population can exercise a diversity of skills including clinical, agency-level and legislative advocacy, and interprofessional teamwork (Higgins & Severson, 2007).

Tina Maschi, PhD, LCSW, ACSW, is an assistant professor at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York City and President of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work. Dr. Maschi has conducted research and published extensively in the area of aging, trauma and mental health, and the criminal justice system, including an edited text on forensic social work and social work research. Read more about her work at:


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