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Aging Population in Jails and Prisons

The incarceration rate for older adults has surged in recent decades. From 1999 to 2016, the number of people 55 and older in state or federal prisons increased 280 percent.

In New York State prisons, despite an overall decline in the prison population, the proportion on older adults in the system has been rising steadily. Right now, in New York State prisons, approximately 8,000 individuals are 50+. This amounts to one in every four incarcerated people being an older adult, an increase from 12 percent of the prison population in 2008.

At the start of February 2023, of the nearly 6,000 people in custody of the New York City Department of Correction (“DOC”) approximately 12 percent of those individuals are older than 50 years of age.

There is no consensus on what constitutes an older adult with respect to the justice-involved population. While in community settings, the age of 65 is considered the “geriatric” threshold, researchers and policymakers often use 50 or 55 as the cut-off for justice-involved individuals.

This difference reflects the widespread evidence of “accelerated aging” for older incarcerated people, where, due to increased exposure to a variety of risk factors for poor health, including incarceration itself, individuals present as 10-15 years older than their chronological age.

According to new analysis from the New York City Council’s data team, an increasing proportion of individuals released from the New York State prison system are 50 and older. Over the past decade, each year, between 800 – 1100 individuals returned to New York City after serving time in the prison system.

After being released, the most common reason for a return to custody for this age demographic is due to a parole violation. These findings correlate with national trends. The ACLU projects that by 2030 one-third of all people in prison will be aged 55 and older.

Older Adults in NYS DOCCS

Jan 1, 2023
7,261 People (23%)
50+ Years Old

Older Adults in NYC DOC

Jan 1, 2023
722 People (13%)
50+ Years Old

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NYS DOCCS Facilties: Population by Age

Total Under NYS DOCCS Custody (Count)
2011 – 2021

Total Under NYS DOCCS Custody (%)
2011 – 2021

While the number of people 50+ in NYC DOCCS custody has been between 8,000 and 10,000, the percentage has been growing the most steadily with roughly 15% in 2011 to around 23% in 2021.

Reasons for Aging Prison Population

Lengthy State and Federal Sentences

While recent years have seen an uptick in the number of people arrested at age 55 or older, long and indeterminate sentences that were more prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s remain a significant factor in the “graying of the prison population“.

According to a 2016 study of aging in prisons, over 50% of people 65 and older have served more than ten years consecutively, and 31% of people in prisons over the age of 65 were serving a life or death sentence in 2013.

In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller proposed strict sentencing guidelines that came to be known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. This “tough-on-crime” approach mandated lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of felony drug offenses. During the 1980s, similar mandatory sentencing statutes, such as “three strikes laws,” spread across the United States.

Most of those imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws are now older than 50. In addition, despite growing evidence that long sentences have a limited impact on deterring future crimes, between 1984 and 2017, the number of people serving life sentences more than quadrupled.

There is stark racial inequity in sentencing outcomes. The United States Sentencing Commission reported that men of color who commit the same crimes received federal prison sentences typically 20 percent longer than those given to white men.

Furthermore, judges are less willing to revise or reduce sentences for Black offenders compared to white offenders. Black and Latinx people are overrepresented among the New York State prison population. Black people constitute 48 percent of all incarcerated people in New York while making up just 15 percent of the state’s population.

NYC DOC Facilties: Population by Age

Total Under NYC DOC Custody (Count)
October 2019 – February 2023

Total Under NYC DOC Custody (%)
October 2019 – February 2023

The NYC DOC inmate population has been increasing since October of 2019. There was a sudden decrease in early 2020 that is most likely due to the city’s COVID 19 State of Emergency, but the population continues to increase after April.

Although the number of inmates that are older than 50 has been increasing, the proportion has not. On January 1st of 2022, 648 (14%) of NYC DOC detained inmates were at least 50 years old.

On January 1, 2023, 722 (13%) of NYC DOC detained inmates were at least 50 years old.

Source: NYC DOC Daily Inmates In Custody

Reasons for Aging Prison Population

Misunderstanding the Risk of Recidivism

An increasing body of research indicates that warehousing individuals for decades is a counterproductive response to deterring criminal behavior.

Most aging people in prison were sentenced in their teens, twenties and thirties and often were the victims of violence or experienced trauma before they committed harm.

As a response to criminal behavior, extreme prison sentences are inconsistent with scientific findings which have shown people “age out of crime” by the time they reach their 40s.

When given the opportunity to return to society, older adults present little to no public safety risk.

Nationwide, 43.3 percent of all released individuals recidivate within three years, while only seven percent of those aged 50-64 and four percent over 65 return to prison for new convictions—the lowest rates among all incarcerated age demographics.

The low recidivism rate of older adults remains consistent regardless of the nature of a person’s criminal conviction.

People who have served longer sentences for violent crimes return to prison at lower rates than those who serve shorter sentences for nonviolent crimes. Less than 2 percent of people 55+ who served prison time for violent crimes return to prison for new crimes.

NYS DOCCS Facilties: First Release & Age

People First Released from NYS DOCCS Custody (Count)
by Age, 2011 – 2020

The number of individuals ages 50+ first released from NYS DOCCS facilities increased from 2011-2018, in a time when most other age groups were decreasing. Following 2018, the number of individuals released decreased across all age groups.

First releases: these were individuals who were released to the community for the first time on their current sentence due to release by the Board of Parole, release due to reaching their approved conditional release date (including maximum expiration with post-release supervision), or release based on reaching maximum expiration of sentence.
Source: NYS DOCCS Releases and Discharges

NYS First Release Proportions

The proportion of individuals ages 35-39 and 50+ first released from NYS DOCCS facilities (out of all releases) have increased over the past decade, while most other age groups decreased.

The proportion of younger individuals, including ages 21 and under and 22-24, released from NYS DOCCS facilities has shown the greatest decrease.
Source: NYS DOCCS Releases and Discharges

People First Released from NYS DOCCS Custody (%)
by Age, 2011 – 2020

Reasons for Aging Prison Population

Limited Opportunities for Release

Parole is a system of discretionary release for people serving indeterminate sentences. An indeterminate sentence is a prison term imposed by a sentencing court that does not specify the exact number of years to be served within the range imposed (for example, 2 to 4 years, or 25 years to life).

Those serving indeterminate sentences are eligible for parole after serving the minimum number of years imposed. New York Executive Law requires the Parole Board to review parole-eligible people at least one month before the parole eligibility date and, should parole be denied, to set the next review no later than 24 months.

Every year, 12,000 incarcerated persons are considered for release to parole supervision by the Board of Parole, which includes an interview with two or three parole commissioners. Commissioners are appointed by the Governor and approved by the State Senate. Parole is denied to a large majority of parole applicants.

Given that individuals over 50 are less likely to infract or commit misconduct while incarcerated, they would seemingly be ideal candidates for parole. However, individuals who do receive a parole hearing are often denied based on the nature of their crime, even if they have a long institutional record of good behavior.

Individuals who are convicted of violent offenses are less likely to be granted parole than those of other crimes based on the nature of their crime, even if their risk assessment score is low and their record of achievements and transformation during incarceration is significant.

There are also racial disparities in parole decisions. According to an analysis by the New York Times, 1 in 6 Black or Latinx men are released after their first parole hearing compared to 1 in 4 white men.

Imprisoned Black people are 30 percent more likely to face disciplinary action and 65 percent more likely to be sent to solitary confinement. Disciplinary tickets on a person’s record make it less likely that they will be granted parole. Yet investigations have revealed rampant discrimination and capriciousness in the disciplinary system.

NYC DOC Facilties: Age of Released Inmates

Decrease in age

The average release age has slowly been decreasing over time. In 2014, the average release age was 39 years old.

In 2022, we see that the average release age is 35.5 years old.

Source: NYC DOC Inmate Discharges

Average Age of Released Inmates in NYC DOC Facilities
2014 – 2023

Age over time

Proportion of Individuals Released from NYC DOC Facilities
2014 – 2022

We see the number of people being released from DOC facilities has been decreasing over time.

The proportion of those being released who are 50 and older has also been decreasing.

In 2014, 23.5% of released inmates were at least 50 years old. In 2022, the percentage was 14.3%.

Source: NYC DOC Inmate Discharges

NYS DOCCS Facilties: Returning to Custody

Return within Three Years of Release

Individuals Returning to NYS DOCCS Custody (Count)
2008 – 2018

While the number of incarcerated individuals being released has decreased over the past decade, the number of those formerly incarcerated returning to prison within 3 years post-release has also declined amongst most age groups.

Individuals Returning to NYS DOCCS Custody (%)
2008 – 2018

Despite an overall decrease in returns post-release, an increasing proportion of these returns have been from the 50 & over and 30-34 aged population.
Source: NYS DOCCS Three Year Post-Release Follow Ups

NYS DOCCS: Returns by Cohort of Aging Individuals

Three-Year Post Follow Up

(Ex: 2018 release, 2021 follow up)
In the past decade, the majority of aging individuals who returned to a NYS DOCCS facility within three years of their release returned on parole violations.

At the state level, an increasing proportion of individuals first released are ages 50+.

Most returns, documented 3 years after initial release date, are due to parole violations.

In the past decade, ~800-1100 individuals aged 50+ returned to NYC on first release from state custody each year. The proportion of these individuals, out of all first releases, has generally trended upwards.

Source: NYS DOCCS Three Year Post-Release Follow Ups

Three Year Post-Release Return Reasons from NYS DOCC (Ages 50+)
2008 – 2018

Issues & Concerns

Age Gap in Accessing Benefits and Services

In the United States, incarcerated adults may be classified as older adults at ages as low as 50. The empirical literature suggests that the biological age of incarcerated individuals is often 10 to 15 years higher than their chronological age.

Outside of the criminal justice system, the age of 65 is considered the “geriatric” threshold. However, data published by and the New York State Comptroller uses the age of 50 as a line of demarcation between younger and older incarcerated adults.

The age of eligibility for Medicare is 65 years or older, while the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits is age 62 or older, unless a person is disabled or blind and has enough work credits.

Justice-involved individuals, including older adults, are generally eligible for Medicaid, TANF and cash assistance in New York, regardless of conviction for a crime. On the programming and support side of the reentry process, NYC Aging generally caters to older adults who are 60 years of age or older. For example, older adult centers (OACs) are only open to individuals 60+, as are the Home Sharing program and the Bill Payer program.

Select NYC Aging programs like the Older Adult Employment Services Unit and ReServe allow older adults who are 55+ and 50+, respectively, to participate . These different ages of eligibility across City, State, and Federal programs and services present a potentially confusing landscape for older adults beginning the reentry process.

Because researchers and policymakers often use 50 or 55 as the cut-off for justice-involved individuals, and because incarceration is so disruptive to an individual’s enrollment in support and benefit programs, older adults who are released from incarceration prior to the age of 60 of 65 may experience difficulty in obtaining the necessary support to care for themselves, especially to manage the impacts of accelerated aging.

While organizations like Osborne and Housing Works assist this population in obtaining benefits and supports, the current patchwork of programming and benefits available with different ages of eligibility and different eligibility criteria remain a significant hurdle for older adults seeking a streamlined reentry process.

Unique Physical and Mental Health Concerns

Compared to their non-incarcerated peers, older adults in prison present with an array of serious medical issues that are exacerbated by their incarceration. Older adults in prison experience health difficulties that correspond to socioeconomic factors. People of color and individuals with little to no socioeconomic capital are likelier to be at risk for poor health prior to their incarceration.

The health of the modern prison population is thus arguably a “distorted reflection of the general population” in that this population usually enters prison having had less access to primary care, a greater likelihood of co-morbidity factors such as substance use, and greater healthcare needs.

Prison populations have a high prevalence of communicable and chronic diseases, including: hepatitis, HIV, tuberculosis, arthritis, hypertension, ulcer disease, prostate issues, respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, strokes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer; this prevalence is disproportionately higher in the older adult prison population compared with the overall prison population.

Incarcerated older adults also show a greater risk of injury, victimization, ailing health, and death than their younger counterparts.

Select NYC Aging programs like the Older Adult Employment Services Unit and ReServe allow older adults who are 55+ and 50+, respectively, to participate. These different ages of eligibility across City, State, and Federal programs and services present a potentially confusing landscape for older adults beginning the reentry process.

Mental health is also a serious concern among the incarcerated older adult population. A study found that 40 percent of older incarcerated people had a diagnosis of cognitive impairment, a prevalence rate that far exceeds their peers in the outside community. Higher rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, and stress have also been found among older incarcerated adults.

The poor mental health of older adults in prison places them at greater risk for dementia and other severely debilitating forms of cognitive impairment.

Unfortunately, mental health diagnoses among older incarcerated people remain both underreported and undertreated. Research shows that corrections officers reported cognitive impairment in older incarcerated people at nearly five times the rate as that reported by prison officials, displaying a critical knowledge disparity within the bureaucracy that bears potentially serious consequences for incarcerated older adults who may not receive the care they need.

Cognitive, visual, and aural impairment (for example, failing to hear the orders of a correctional officer) can lead to behaviors mistaken for disobedience or aggression, and can subject individuals to institutional punishment, such as solitary confinement—further compromising the mental and emotional health of those most in need of care.

Concerns for Older Incarcerated Women and LGBTQI+ Older Adults

Women in jail are the fastest-growing correctional population in the country—increasing 14-fold between 1970 and 2014. Once incarcerated, women and gender-expansive people must grapple with correctional systems designed primarily for cisgender men.

As a result, they often return to their families and communities with additional challenges compared to when they enter jail or prison. For example, for TGNCNBI individuals in New York City custody, the destabilizing impact of incarceration is exacerbated by a lack of safe, gender-aligned housing, creating a greater risk they will experience violence while in custody.

There are also gaps in re-entry planning for the TGNCNBI individuals in New York City jails, who would benefit greatly from continuity in medical and healthcare as well as connection to other resources such as gender-affirming housing.

Compared to incarcerated men, women in custody are more likely to be economically disadvantaged, suffer from substance abuse disorders, or be prior victims of abuse. In addition, the majority of incarcerated women are parents to children under 18.

These unique challenges highlight the need for gender-responsive re-entry programming to assist the growing number of women returning to society. For example, increasing the availability of cognitive behavioral therapy, all-female group sessions, and mutual support groups have been recommended as ways to improve re-entry programming for justice-involved women.


To address this issue, the Committee on Criminal Justice will be introducing the following resolution:
  • Fair and Timely Parole Act (S307/A162) and Elder Parole Act (S2423/A2035). Res. No. 241-A

 For feedback, comments, and questions please email

Created by the NYC Council Data Team.