Missouri is in the midst of reckoning with one of the many long term consequences of mass incarceration: a rapidly growing number of elders incarcerated in state prisons. The aging prison population primarily consists of individuals who received lengthy sentences for offenses committed decades ago. Increasing numbers of elderly incarcerated people leads to significant increases in healthcare costs for an already overburdened DOC budget: data shows that older incarcerated people are approximately twice as costly to incarcerate compared to their younger counterparts. The continued incarceration of older adults and limited opportunities for parole goes against recidivism data that shows that the likelihood of an individual’s return to prison drops significantly as they age. The devastating impacts on elderly incarcerated individuals and their families, coupled with the economic cost to taxpayers and a strained DOC budget, will only grow with time as the elderly prison population continues to age. It is time for Missouri to make a concerted effort to address this issue and open up pathways for early release for elderly incarcerated people.
Justice Involved Elders by the Numbers
A lack of access to healthy lifestyle options, added to the stress of day-to-day life in prison, accelerates the aging process, making incarcerated individuals 10 to 15 physiological years older than their chronological age. Most incarcerated people are considered elderly when they reach age 50, and consistently have higher rates of mental illness, chronic medical conditions and infectious diseases than the general population.
The number of people aged 50 and older who are in Missouri prisons is increasing at 11 times the rate of the overall prison population. Since 2005 the number has doubled, according to data from the Department of Corrections. As of 2021, approximately 4,900 of the more than 23,000 incarcerated individuals under Missouri’s charge — 21% — are over age 50. Of those 4,900, about two thirds are in their 50s, roughly 1600 incarcerated individuals are in their 60s, and almost 400 are age 70 and older.
The Challenges of Aging in Prison
Prison is not an easy environment for anyone to live in, and the challenges of incarcerated life increase as people age. Older adults in prison are more likely to have a mental health disorder than younger people in prison, exacerbating physical challenges. The physical demands of daily life in prison can be a struggle for people as they age, such as walking from one side of the yard to the other or keeping up with assigned work duties.
The vast majority of older adults in Missouri prisons will return to the community at some point, where they face significant challenges. Older reentrants are more likely to be unhoused or housing insecure than their younger counterparts. They also face significant barriers to employment, including being unable to work due to age or health, and being barred from higher paying jobs due to their record and time incarcerated. This is compounded by intense social isolation and health concerns coupled with limited access to benefits and services.
Thankfully, there are policy solutions that can address the challenges faced by incarcerated and returning elders, including:
- Increasing pathways for compassionate early release from prison
- Providing additional funding and supports to housing and care programs for returning elders
- Streamlining systems for enrolling returning elders into healthcare coverage
- Removing barriers to accessing social security and SSI benefits
The first of these solutions has been posed to the Missouri legislature multiple times throughout the years in various “geriatric parole” bills. This year, there are several pieces of legislation that would offer the possibility of parole to elderly individuals in Missouri prisons.
- House Bill 357, sponsored by Representative Kimberly Ann-Collins, would allow parole hearings for certain individuals serving life without parole sentences if they meet the following requirements: have served 30 years of their sentence, are 65 years or older, meet the criteria for medical parole, have not been convicted of any additional dangerous felonies besides the offense they are incarcerated for, and are not a sex offender
- House Bill 472, sponsored by Representative Ian Mackey, would allow parole hearings for certain individuals serving life without parole sentences if they meet a number of requirements, including the following: have served 30 years of their sentence, are 60 years or older, have not been convicted of any additional dangerous felonies besides the offense they are incarcerated for, and are not a sex offender
- Senate Bill 147, sponsored by Senator Steve Roberts, would allow parole hearings for certain individuals serving life without parole sentences for first and second degree murder convictions if they meet a number of requirements, including the following: have served 30 years of their sentence, are 60 years or older, have not been convicted of any additional felonies besides the offense they are incarcerated for, and are not a sex offender
- Senate Bill 196, sponsored by Senator Brian Williams, would create a geriatric parole category and allow individuals to petition the parole board if they meet the following criteria: age 55 or older and has served at least 15 years of the sentence; age 60 or older and has served at least 10 years of the sentence; or age 65 or older and has served at least 5 years of the sentence.
Empower Missouri supports these pieces of legislation and all other efforts to address the issue of aging adults in state prisons. This issue will continue to grow in the coming years if not addressed with meaningful solutions.
For further reading on this issue, check out the following:
Solutions remain elusive as elderly prisoners grow in number | News | columbiamissourian.com
Reducing Barriers to Reentry for Older Adults Leaving Incarceration | Justice in Aging
Elderly, Detained, and Justice-Involved: The Most Incarcerated Generation (cuny.edu)
Nothing But Time- Elderly Americans Serving Life without Parole- Sentencing Project