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A systematic review of the characteristics and needs of older prisonersPurpose The purpose of this paper is to review and understand what the existing evidence base concludes about the needs of this population. The older prisoner population is growing faster than the older general population and placing a strain on prisons. Much of the existing literature focusses on the health-care needs of, or in-prison initiatives for, older prisoners. Typically, these are responsive and lacking an evidence-based understanding of the characteristics and needs of this group. Design/methodology/approach This paper presents a systematic review of the existing literature on the needs and characteristics of older people in contact with the criminal justice system. After a thorough search and selection process, 21 papers, from 2002 onwards, were included in the final analysis. The review process was structured through (People, Intervention/Exposure, Comparison, Outcome) and reported using (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses). Findings The contradictions within the existing evidence base make it difficult to reach firm conclusions about the needs and characteristics of older prisoners. What is clear from the existing research are the relatively high levels of need. There is also some consensus that where older people commit homicide, the victim is likely to be an intimate partner. Overall, there is a need for consistent recording and reporting of characteristics and demographics and more systematic study design. Originality/value This paper has highlighted the key findings and limitations in the existing literature. Future research should make use of secondary official data sources to provide a clearer understanding of the characteristics of this group, their routes to prison, their needs and challenges they present.