The Cost of Aging in Prison

“I am 72 years old and I am tired, my body is tired, but I still must work 5 days a week. I am not allowed to retire.”


The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) requires that Dee, and 20,000 other prisoners older than age 55, work every day. In California more than 20,000 state prisoners fit that age cutoff.

The increase in the number of older adult prisoners appears to be an unintended consequence of lengthy prison sentences and mass incarceration. As a result, all prisoners, even those well into their 70s, are still required to engage in “normal programming,” meaning they must spend the day in some type of program such as work or basic education. Refusal to work, which can include being sick without an official medical exemption, can result in a cascade of disciplinary actions including loss of “privileges” (e.g., access to telephone and canteen, visits, packages). Prisoners also can be written up and receive a “115,” otherwise known as a rules violation charge, which can negatively affect their parole board hearing.

The physical environment of most prisons is not suited for older adults. Older adult prisoners can randomly be assigned upper bunks, despite the risk of falling. There are few, if any, grab bars, handrails or anti-slip mats. These are not luxury items but modifications that promote safety and prevent injury.

Age More Quickly

Although age 55 is generally not considered elderly (a term usually reserved for those ages 65 and older), research shows that incarceration accelerates aging and incarcerated individuals tend to be 10 to 12 years older, physiologically, than their chronological age. People in prison also experience more chronic and life-threatening illnesses years earlier than do those in the general population.

People in prison experience more chronic and life-threatening illnesses years earlier those in the general population.

Older adults in California, including those with chronic (but not totally disabling) illnesses, are expected to follow rules designed for much younger and more physically able people. There are few accommodations for the needs of older prisoners. They are assigned to work/program every day, despite harsh or hazardous work conditions. And prison rules do not account for the cognitive decline that is often associated with aging, including dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease and any accompanying behavioral consequences.

Mandated Labor

Diego, a 73-year-old kitchen worker, writes about rising before dawn, dressing quietly in his cold cell and walking across the dark prison yard to report for the early breakfast shift. His work involves several hours of standing and frequent lifting, moving boxes of bread, dairy and produce. He said that at the end of each shift his back, feet and joints ache and he wonders how long he will be able to continue working.

Older adults in California prisons, including those with chronic (but not totally disabling) illnesses are mandated to work every day. There are no provisions that would allow older prisoners to stop working or reduce their hours of work. Incarcerated Californians, including those with chronic conditions, are obligated to continue working well into their 70s and 80s.

Older adults can be assigned to work in kitchens, yards or other areas that are high-risks for falls, injuries and weather-related distress (most prisons are located in weather-impacted areas, more often hot climates with no air conditioning). One 72-year-old prisoner with a cane whose job was to push wheelchairs, asked if she could be excused from pushing a much heavier patient in a wheelchair across the yard in 105°-plus heat as she wasn’t feeling well, but was given a write-up for refusing to work.

Jenell, a 76-year-old prisoner wrote, she “just can’t keep up.” She explained that the prison requires that she work each day and a refusal to work, even for one day, could result in a write-up and loss of privileges. As a housing unit porter, Jenell mops hallways and cleans showers, lifting heavy pails and using sponges to scrub walls and shower floors, and says she finds it more physically challenging each day.

Medical Exemption Option

Jamal, a 55-year-old prisoner, wrote, “This is a medical facility and I have end-stage liver disease. I have a 19-pound medical restriction from a high-risk doctor. My first job here was a kitchen job back in scullery scrubbing pots and pans for a thousand-man breakfast. It was the hardest job in any prison, with the most unsafe conditions. Now I cell feed 200 men, carrying each tray to every cell upstairs, downstairs. I wake up and I have to go to my school assignment 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 and then from 2:30 to 8:45. I am feeding and cleaning a whole cell block.”

Although some prisoners are “medically exempt” from the work requirement, such exemptions are not granted on the basis of chronic illnesses (e.g., asthma, arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis), or the use of devices that have been prescribed to assist mobility (e.g., cane, walker, wheelchair), or old age. Some prisoners report that they are forced to continue to work in spite of mobility loss; declining ability to see, hear, and/or respond quickly; constant joint pain; fear of falling; and fatigue.

Lower Bunks

There are no provisions in the California Code of Regulations that require the department to assign those older than age 55 to a lower bunk. Older adults may be randomly assigned to an upper bunk despite the challenges and risk of falling. Most bunk beds are not equipped with a ladder so one must first step up on a slippery pull-out footstool (metal) attached to the desk, then step onto the top of the desk, then find a way to get a knee up on the upper bunk.

‘Jenell, a 76-year-old incarcerated person wrote that she “just can’t keep up.” ’

This is a challenge for even the healthiest 60-year-old incarcerated person. Another huge risk is getting down from the upper bunk in the middle of the night to use the toilet, as the light switch is located next to the cell door. Prisoners are unlikely to disturb their bunkie by turning on the overhead light. Needless to say, falls are not uncommon. Although a lower bunk may be requested, there is no policy that allows for this consideration, thus the request for a lower bunk often can be denied.

Proposed Regulation Changes

CURE-CA (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization) is proposing that CDCR change its current policy and provide the following options to prisoners ages 55 and older:

  • To be automatically assigned a lower bunk based on age alone (as is the regulation for pregnant patients)
  • To retire from all assigned work
  • To retire and select a volunteer assignment
  • To be assigned to half time less demanding work (4 hours per day)
  • To continue to work in current assignment
  • And to continue to qualify for the same privileges available prior to retirement.

NOTE: In California, prisoners ages 50 and older are considered elderly (CA Penal Code 3055 [a] The Elderly Parole Program). According to the United States Department of Justice, an Aging Offender is defined as an Offender exhibiting measurable physiological, functional or cognitive changes related to accelerated aging, generally an individual whose chronological age is 50 years or older.

Marilyn Montenegro, PhD, LCSW, is a prison abolitionist, a member of the CURE-CA Executive Body and lives in Southern Calif. Aileen Hongo, MSW, MAG, is a geriatric social worker who has facilitated creative therapy and healthy aging workshops for older adults in California prisons since 2006. Jane Dorotik, was wrongfully convicted of killing her husband, served 22 years in prison and was then exonerated.

Photo caption: Co-author Jane Dorotik while incarcerated.

Photo credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age