Older Women Behind Bars

Article excerpt

Women in prison represent a much-neglected population. Only recently has it become apparent that the number of older offenders is beginning to pose significant problems for correctional officials. Offenders older than 50 present new challenges due to their growing numbers and the projected growth of this group in the coming decades. The challenge of responding to the increasing number of older women in jail and prison is compounded by the negative effects of crowding, lack of space and constant movement in and out of institutions.

Although women make up a small percentage of incarcerated adults in the U.S. prison system, the number of women in prison is increasing at a much faster rate than that of men. At the end of 1999, women as a whole constituted 6.4% (90,668) of all federal and state inmates, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. Of the total number held in U.S. prisons in 1999, some 2,078 were between the ages of 55 and 74. The Corrections Yearbook for 2000 showed that 130 females serving time in state and federal prisons were over the age of 75. Older female offenders represent only about 5% of the total older inmate population. As a whole, the majority of older prisoners are non-Hispanic whites; however, a disproportionate number of older inmates are African American.


Like older male offenders, older women in prison may be incarcerated for the first time late in life or may be growing old in prison as a result of long sentences. Drawing firm conclusions about the experiences of older women in prison is difficult, however, because so little literature is available on this topic. It is clear, though, that older women have a broad variety of healthcare needs. Neglecting the needs of older women in prison simply on the grounds of numerical rarity does not seem to be ethically justifiable. Comprehensive strategies will be necessary to adequately respond to the special needs of the increasing number of older female offenders.

Two-thirds of the women in all prisons and jails are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. For the other one-third, such violent offenses as murder and manslaughter constitute the majority of criminal activity. Drugs or drug trafficking also account for the incarceration of an increasing number of older female offenders, followed by forgery, theft and robbery. As a result of the serious crimes committed by older inmates in their 40s and 5os, a significant number are serving life sentences.

The establishment of longer mandatory sentences, the war on drugs and the abolition of parole in some states are some of the factors contributing to the increasing number of long-term inmates. Another simple explanation for the rise in the older female prison population is that there are now more older females to commit crime. An additional factor is that welfare reform has reduced the legal means available for those at poverty level to support their families, a situation that could lead to an increase in the number of impoverished female single parents and elderly women committing crimes. Also, there appears to be a greater trend toward putting women in prison for their crimes and giving them harsher sentences.


Geriatric female inmates will likely use medical services more than other inmates. This development is coming at a time when many correctional systems have already been criticized for their consistent indifference to the special needs of female offenders. Despite severe fiscal constraints and societal unwillingness to spend resources on inmate care, numerous physical and mental health concerns of older female inmates are becoming a major issue for healthcare officiais.

Previous research on women prisoners shows heavy use of health services. In a study of heath status and service use among incarcerated women, Diane S.

Young reported in Family and Community Health (October 1998) that use of health services was remarkable in a sample of women in Washington State's women's prisons. …