Prisons Age You Faster, And Now They’re Full Of Elders Like Him

close up of a black man with a beard
Zain Murdock
April 18, 2024

In 1972, 16-year-old Andre Gay went to Pennsylvania state prison. He soon formed relationships with the elders at the facility, who even held classes in politics and economics.

 And then he stayed in prison. For more than 50 years.

Now in his 60s, Gay’s the elder. He took on sciatica, joint pain, and decreased stamina along with age. Before his 2022 release, he noticed the mutual relationship between older and younger generations as his role switched. Young men, for example, may walk visually impaired elders to where they need to be.

And not only is the elderly population growing in prison, but prison conditions redefine what “elderly” even means.

Today, elderly incarcerated people make up 5x more of the prison population than they did a few decades ago. They are the generation entrapped by life sentences after historic crime legislation, the War on Drugs, and the rise of mass incarceration. 

And because prison conditions are so brutal, the definition for geriatric is as young as 50 years old behind bars.

The U.S. prison population is aging faster than the general population, which isn’t sustainable. Halting this health crisis could mean organizing mass compassionate release. But if we’re thinking long-term, we have to reconsider what it means for a system so brutal it accelerates age to play such a significant role in our society.