New Report: Dementia and the Aging Prison Population

Wilson Center Releases Policy Brief on Best Practices for Care and Release of Incarcerated Individuals with Dementia

A medical professional holds the hand of an elderly person using a cane

The number of incarcerated seniors has tripled in the last 20 years, and that number is only expected to grow. By 2030, U.S. prisons will incarcerate 400,000 seniors – 1/3 of the total prison population. Estimates vary but more than half of incarcerated seniors may develop dementia by that point. 

“Incarcerated people are at a greater risk for developing cognitive impairment and dementia than the wider community, so it is critical we implement policies that address the needs of older adults in prison,” says Angie Weis Gammell, Policy Director for the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law.  

Today, the Wilson Center releases a new policy brief, that makes recommendations on best practices for care and screening of incarcerated people with dementia as well as for their medical release. 

“People living with dementia in prisons are often unaware of their surroundings or why they are in prison, so continuing to incarcerate them no longer serves a punitive, rehabilitative, or deterrent purpose,” adds lead report author and Policy Analyst Megan Moore.  

To best address the challenges of an aging prison population and needs of individuals living with dementia, the Wilson Center recommends the following:   

  1. Regularly screen older adults in carceral settings for dementia and other cognitive impairments. 
  2. Modify medical release statutes to provide meaningful opportunities for release to individuals living with dementia and other cognitive impairments.
  3. Provide robust release planning services and support reentry programs targeting older adults.
  4. To the extent individuals cannot qualify for early release, provide adequate medical care for older adults living with dementia and other cognitive impairments in carceral settings. 

The recommendations laid out in this report are applicable to both state and federal prisons across the country, but can be especially relevant for states like North Carolina, who have recently expanded medical release.  

“The North Carolina Department of Corrections has a unique opportunity to reexamine their best practices in light of the state’s recent expansion of medical release,” says Wilson Center Executive Director Yvette Garcia Missri. The expansion lowered the age from 65 to 55 and expanded the criteria under which individuals could be considered for release. “Incarcerated adults often develop age-related health complications, including dementia, at younger ages than the general population. Those with dementia, in particular, pose little to no risk and are more likely to be eligible for medical release. Implementing policies to ensure their release has the opportunity to improve the lives of incarcerated people and their families, as well as reducing the burden on the Department of Corrections with no negative impact on public safety,” she adds.  

Read the full policy brief: The Aging Prison Population and Dementia: Best Practices for Care and Release.