Aging in prison
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi

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 PJP's coverage on aging in prison here.

Prison makes an awful elderly care facility, yet more prisons are rapidly becoming just that.

Thanks in large part to longer prison sentences and decreasing rates of parole, the number of incarcerated people 55 and older has climbed from 48,000 to 160,000 over the last two decades. 

In 2019, this age cohort made up 63% of state prison deaths for the first time since figures were tracked, according to the most recent data available. 

That’s why Prison Journalism Project is debuting a special project on America’s graying prison system. Over the coming weeks, we’ll publish stories every Tuesday and Thursday from incarcerated writers that chronicle different facets of growing old behind bars. We will collect the stories below as they appear on the website. Eric Finley brings us the first essay in the series, in which he explains the explosion of older people inside the Florida Department of Corrections. 

In the weeks to come, writers Mithrellas Curtis and Chanell Burnette will share stories on the legal battle for adequate senior health care inside their Virginia prison.

Randy Hansen writes a humorous, if dark, essay on his monthslong wait for dentures in California’s San Quentin State Prison. “How is someone who gets released from prison looking like a jack-o’-lantern supposed to get a job?” Hansen writes.

Several writers in the project tackle the psychological and spiritual challenges of growing old inside. “Those lost years are not coming back,” writes Jayson Hawkins, who is serving a life sentence in Texas. “I have already buried my 20s, 30s and 40s — golden decades when dreams of a family and career should have been fulfilled.”

And Dorothy Maraglino, from California, meditates on homesickness and the profound loneliness that attends aging in prison. “To properly explain to family and friends how badly I need emails, letters and phone calls, I would have to describe how it feels to be trapped in this tiny room with nothing but memories,” she writes.

We have curated stories with the hope of shedding light on the increasingly urgent problem of aging in U.S. prisons. We hope it starts a conversation about the challenges facing a large and growing portion of the country’s incarcerated population.

Statistics show that recidivism rates decrease dramatically as a person ages. Recidivism rates drop to 2% for people between the ages of 50 and 65, and drop to virtually zero for people older than 65. But many people in those age cohorts will not get another opportunity to live outside prison.

As Raymond Torres describes in his reflection for our special package, being released during middle age can mean a do-over. But for older people serving long sentences, there is “little chance of survival or remaking themselves on the outside again.”

Read the latest stories:

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.

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Wyatt Stayner

Wyatt Stayner is an associate editor at Prison Journalism Project. Before that, he worked for seven years as a reporter at two local newspapers: The Herald in Jasper, Indiana, and The Columbian in Vancouver, Washington. He has covered county government, high school sports and health. During Wyatt's time on the health beat, he led The Columbian's coverage of a 2019 measles outbreak, and one year later he spearheaded the paper's coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. His reporting received Society of Professional Journalists Washington Chapter's Northwest Excellence Award for First Place for feature writing and the C.B. Blethen Awards. Wyatt holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon, and a master's degree in journalism from City University of New York. He is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and currently lives in Brooklyn.