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Disabilities like hearing loss are often go untreated 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 the stories in the series here.

I have known “Pistol,” a 78-year-old man who is hard of hearing, for about seven years. As evidenced by the great medical care he requires, he is harmless. When I look at him, I see a human withering away, with little hope that there is much reason to go on. 

Why Pistol? Because he used to rob banks using a gun as a scare tactic; it was never loaded. 

Pistol entered the California prison system at the age of 49. I met him in a mental health state hospital over 20 years later. When an inmate in the prison system experiences decompensation, a severe inability to cope, the prison can recommend admittance to a state hospital if deemed necessary by professional mental health staff. 

Pistol was admitted to the state hospital because other inmates were physically abusing him and stealing his stuff. At some point, he had a “meltdown.” It was partly due to mental health reasons. But he also needed to get out of there for his own safety. Many older inmates are easily taken advantage of and disrespected. It’s a big fish-and-little fish ecosystem. The prison system can be cold and harsh for older people.

Pistol looked like he was 100 years old when I first encountered him. Nearly three decades in the prison system — with an unjust and unnecessarily long sentence — had taken a toll.

Recently, Pistol’s hearing has deteriorated. When we both transferred to our current prison, he needed a set of hearing aids. The process of obtaining them took over seven and a half months, far longer than it should have.  

Getting replacement batteries was another major hurdle. The lifespan of the batteries is not long, close to two months, so he had to constantly sign up for “sick call” to get replacements. But medical staff were ordered to replace hearing aid batteries every three months, regardless of their actual lifespan. 

In response, Pistol filed a complaint, which was subsequently returned. Staff were following California prison protocol, the rejection read. The reason he could not get his batteries sooner was because of budget concerns. Pistol would have to go without hearing. 

I believe the money is available to help people like Pistol. But in prison, as in society at large, older people are too often overlooked.

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.

Robert James Koenig is a German-Mexican writer incarcerated in California.