The following story is part of PJP's special project, "The Graying of America’s Prisons." For this series, we curated reported stories and essays from across the country to catalyze a conversation about the now-ubiquitous phenomenon of growing old behind bars. Read all of the stories in the series here.
After decades of mandatory sentencing laws and reductions in parole, the number of aging inmates in our prisons has increased dramatically.
Overzealous courts have levied harsh sentences and filled blue steel bunks with what I consider to be reformed, and now harmless, old men.
In the mid- to late-1980s, the war on drugs began a trend of harsher sentencing laws. Recent increases in violent crime rates have contributed to more punitive sentencing, with little to no opportunities for rehabilitation available inside. Based on my tour of prisons in Florida, human warehousing appears to be the new normal.
I am currently housed in a maximum security prison in Florida, where 5 in 8 housing units are designated for inmates 55 and older.
When released to eat, we form a parade of wheelchairs, canes and other assistive devices. One man, who is a double amputee, leads another man who is blind. I see this every day.
A friend of mine once pushed me in my wheelchair while returning from our meal. He is 91 years old and calls me a kid; I recently turned 56. When I asked him when he would be released, he ignored my question. I don’t plan on asking again.
When I jokingly accused him of using me as a walker to get back and forth from the dining hall, he admitted it was partially true.
I spoke recently with another man, who turned 81 last fall. He is paralyzed from the waist down. He and I both know he will die here.
Other inmates change his diapers and bathe him. He has been in prison for decades now. How he got here seems irrelevant — the recidivism rate for people older than 65 is almost zero.
The man in the bunk next to me is 77 years old. He has been in prison for 13 years and needs to live another 12 before he can get released. “They store us like fruit in bad conditions and for too long,” he said.
During the years I’ve been inside, only one person I knew well has been released. At least eight men I knew well have died. One of them passed in the bunk right next to mine while I was asleep.
A very good friend of mine went to an outside hospital for a triple bypass surgery in the fall of 2021. He was 75 years old and had served almost 30 years. He told me many times he was afraid of dying before his release date.
He had no family left and needed a place to live after prison. Because we were both military veterans, I shared information with him about the facility for homeless vets where I will go after my release. He had tears in his eyes the night he received a letter that confirmed his acceptance into the program. He promised me a steak dinner and a fishing trip.
Unfortunately, my friend died days before his release. He was unable to recover from the open-heart surgery. This honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran was a kind and wise old man who had just wanted to fish a few final times.
It would have been morally appropriate to have released him early. He could have received the level of care he deserved from a veteran’s hospital.
His fate is likely representative of many harmless old men in overcrowded prisons nationwide.
I plan to cast a baited line in the water for my friend soon after I’m released.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.