An empty hallway of enclosed prison cells with tray slots on the steel doors.

Death by Incarceration: America’s Aging Prison Population

Who is behind bars in the United States? There’s a stereotypical image of the prisoner as a “dangerous” person: young, male, gang-affiliated, and often Black or Brown. It’s true that the U.S. incarcerates Black and Brown men at wildly disproportionate rates (Statista). But it’s also true that transgender people are three times more likely to be locked up than cisgender people (SDLGTBN) and that incarceration of women increased by 700% in the last three decades (APA). There’s another population of incarcerated people who don’t fit stereotypes designed to bolster tough-on-crime policies: the elderly. The world’s largest carceral system oversees an aging prison population as the number of incarcerated elders rises (EJI). 

Over the last 20 years, the number of incarcerated people in the United States over the age of 55 has more than tripled to 160,000. There are more incarcerated elders than people living in Springfield, Missouri. People over 55 account for the majority of deaths in state prisons due to an inhumane deficit of adequate medical care. They are expected to account for a third of incarcerated people in the U.S. by 2030 (U.S. News). The February 19, 2016, release of Albert Woodfox provides a harrowing example of the workings of the U.S. injustice system. 


• Support the Prison Journalism Project and share their collection, The Graying of America’s Prisons.

• Support the Senior Ex-Offender Program or a local organization working with formerly incarcerated elders.

• Support the Malcolm X Grassroot Movement and Anarchist Black Cross Federation and contact an older incarcerated political prisoner.

Woodfox, Robert King, and Herman Wallace organized the first chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense behind bars, teaching literacy, organizing hunger strikes, and fighting against “systematic prison rape” (NOLA). As a result, the “Angola 3” were falsely convicted of the murder of a white prison guard despite a complete absence of proof connecting them to the killing. The three men spent decades in 6x9x12 foot cells as some of the 80,000 people incarcerated in solitary confinement under the U.S. regime. All three political prisoners were released as elders, with Herman Wallace liberated just days before he passed away. Albert Woodfox spent a record 43 years in solitary confinement before being released on his 69th birthday (The GuardianInnocence Project). He had entered the prison system at 18. “I do not have the words to convey the years of mental, emotional, and physical torture I endured,” he wrote (NOLA). 

Despite struggling with the debilitating psychological effects of prolonged solitary confinement (CNN), Woodfox wrote an acclaimed memoir and spoke out in defense of those still behind bars (NOLA). This includes a huge number of incarcerated elders who form part of a rapidly aging prison population. Some will one day be released, expected to enter the workforce with a criminal conviction and decades of absent work experience (Prison Journalism Project). Others are serving life sentences, condemned to die behind prison walls. It’s what incarcerated activists call death by incarceration, and Pope Francis labeled the “hidden death penalty” (PEN America). 

“Those lost years are not coming back. I have already buried my 20s, 30s, and 40s—golden decades when dreams of a family and career should have been fulfilled,” says Jayson Hawkins, serving a life sentence (Prison Journalism Project). Not every incarcerated elder was the victim of explicit political persecution, as were the Angola 3. Some were railroaded into unjust sentences after shoddy trials or coerced plea bargains. Some were convicted of victimless crimes. And, yes, some of them harmed others, often decades in the past. Over-policing, increasingly draconian prison sentences and the growth of surveillance and mass incarceration across U.S. society leave these elders with no chance to return to their lives—though the rate of re-arrest for those over 65 is “almost zero percent” (Vera).

It’s hard to argue that a just response to any harm is locking people in cages for decades and subjecting them to brutality or sexual abuse while withholding adequate food, medical care, or any of the requirements for a minimally dignified life. We must demand that incarcerated elders be returned to their communities and supported upon release. We must remain indignant at living under a system that condemns older adults to die alone in cages, some sentenced to die under conditions that the United Nations describes frankly as “torture” (OHCHR). The release of imprisoned octogenarians does not threaten the safety of our communities. A gargantuan prison system operating as a cornerstone of U.S. “racial facism” very much does (Boston Review). 


• The aging prison population is growing dramatically in the United States. 

• Some are serving life sentences to die by incarceration. 

• Others will be released as elders with almost no social support, connections, or work experience.

1200 769 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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