An aging prison population
Seniors in prison face many challenges. The worst? Being betrayed by their own bodies.
Last month, U.S. Catholic published a feature on the juvenile justice system in our country, both the harsh realities of life in prison for juvenile offenders and the tenets of Catholic teachings on criminal justice. Catholic social teaching calls for rehabilitation through the filter of mercy; this does not translate to leniency, but calls for incarceration guided by rehabilitation as opposed to solely punishment.
This lens of mercy is also often needed to guide society’s treatment of another demographic of inmates: seniors. Life in prison can be challenging for anyone, but its hurdles are often compounded for the inmates whose minds and bodies are being compromised by age. The complexities of aging are many and varied, as is well-documented in so much of our popular culture, health magazines, and books. Very rarely, though, do articles touch on the ramifications of aging for the prison population.
In 1989 the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project reported the nation’s prisons held 30,500 inmates age 50 or older; now, according to an updated 2012 version of the same report, state prisons around the country house 246,000 inmates age 50 and older. That number is projected to grow to 400,000 by 2030. According to the United States Bureau of Justice statistics, the aging prison population increased by 63 percent between 2007 and 2010, even though the total prison population only grew by 0.7 percent during the same period.
As a result, state and local prisons must spend significant funds to provide for the medical care and housing needs of the aging members of their communities—a cost for which most prisons are unprepared. The average cost of medical care and maintenance for inmates over 50 is $68,270 per year—double that of a younger prisoner.
To communicate the many challenges endured by the aging prison population, photographer Ron Levine and designers Michael Wou and Russell Volckmann came together to create the Prisoners of Age exhibit. Comprised of a series of photographs and interviews with elderly inmates and corrections personnel taken in U.S. and Canadian prisons over the past 20 years, Levine’s exhibit encourages visitors to consider the human dimension of doing time while growing old in prison.
Levine’s photographs and interviews are uncensored, raw, and designed to be commanding. Each of the 60 prints that make up the final collection is enlarged to 4x8 feet and suspended from the museum ceiling. Each captures in some form the frailty, uncertainty, or other common realities of old age. The collection highlights aspects of the universality of the aging experience.
The interviews highlight the challenges facing these prisoners in their daily routine. “Aging in prison is really difficult. . . . Fighting to not have to be placed in an upper bunk. . . . Younger, more aggressive inmates trying to push you aside to get in front of you in line for all kinds of things,” says Jane Dorotik, a 66-year-old inmate. Age also makes these prisoners easy targets for everything ranging from the simple theft of their personal belongings to more serious gang violence and assault.
A life sentence takes on new meaning for prisoners serving time well into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s. Hearing loss and dementia make it difficult for prisoners to comprehend or obey rules. The need for wheelchairs, walkers, and canes makes navigating the small, tight space configurations of most prisons very difficult. For the oldest prisoners, even the most basic activities, such as walking at a steady pace or dressing oneself, are difficult without assistance—something not every prison has the budget or staff to provide.
Prisoners aging behind bars will eventually need assisted living and nursing home levels of care while incarcerated. In the near future, prisons will need to operate specialized geriatric facilities—some, like Ohio’s Hocking Correctional Facility, already do.
The burgeoning senior prisoner population has important financial, practical, and moral implications for all Americans, not just those incarcerated. Deciding how to treat these people is emotionally and morally complex, as well as bureaucratically complicated. Regardless of how we ultimately elect to address the issue, it’s undeniable we need to address it soon, with thought and sensitivity to all involved—the aging prisoners and the general public
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