In Texas, we pride ourselves in being bigger and better than anyone.  That includes our prison system.

old and in jailMost Texans are aware and probably proud that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), which houses Texan prisoners, is large.  Very large!  Texas is second to only California in the size of its prison system with 156,526 in the TDCJ facilities.  Also, as it does every year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, Texas led the nation in 2012 with 15 executions.

The issues surrounding prisoners, the treatment of prisoners, and what to do about overcrowding in TDCJ facilities, runs high with strong opinions, emotion and ethics. What is becoming increasing clear are the facts about older inmates – those who are incarcerated and 55 years of age or older.  The age of 55 is recognized as ‘old’ in prison if you have been incarcerated and growing old while in prison.  The prison environment ‘ages’ you faster and a 55 year old prisoner is said to be equivalent in health to a 65 year old living outside prison.

The increase in the number of older inmates in the past 10 years is staggering with projected increases even greater than current figures. Then, there is cost.  On average, it costs $67,000/year to house and care for an older prisoner (55+ years) compared to $22,000 for those younger than 55.  As you might expect, looking at just health care costs alone, an average younger inmate costs about $5,800 per year compared to $11,000 for those 55-59  and spirals to $40,000 for inmates 80 years and older.

So what are the solutions?  Nothing is simple when it comes to crime. Prisoners regardless of age are a risk and threat to society – period.

But the issue of ‘security risk’ among an older prisoner with diabetes, coronary heart disease, living in a wheelchair with dementia is absurd.  There has been increasing talks and implementation of compassionate release programs among older prisoners who are clearly no threat to society.  Reports have concluded that the Federal compassionate release program saves the Federal Bureau of Prisons mucho dollars and can help in relieving overcrowding concerns.  However, it is a flawed program.  From 2006 through 2011, the program approved 142 releases and denied 36 out of 206 requests. In 28 cases, the inmates died before decisions were made.  The system moves very slowly when risk is involved. On a case by case basis, it is difficult to keep emotions out of the issue of releasing older prisoners.

Does common sense help at all to realize that a 95 year old grandfather in a wheelchair with dementia incarcerated with a life sentence for some heinous act he committed 50 years ago, is not going to hurt anyone anymore?  Or are we just resigned to the fact that they committed a crime and they have to pay for it.  No matter if it makes any sense at all.

Our Guest Blogger this week is Tony DiNuzzo, Ph.D., Director of the ETGEC/C

Join us for a real-time discussion about questions raised by this essay on Wednesday from 12:00 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. See Discussion and SL tabs above for details. Link to the virtual meeting room:


  1. Abner, C. Graying Prisons: States Face Challenges of an Aging Inmate Population. Stae News, Nov/Dec 2006.
  2. Neumeister, L. Compassionate Release Review Buoys Old US Inmates. Salon, May 12, 2013.
  3. Sherman, M. Four States Executed Vast Majority of Inmates In 2012: Death Penalty Information Center.  Huffington Post: Crime, Dec 18, 2012.
  4. Williams, T. Number of Older Inmates Grows, Stressing Prisons. NY Times, Jan 26, 2012.