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Hourglass concept on 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 the stories in the series here.

I’m getting old. 

Happens to everyone, right? Our bodies start to slow down, names escape us, memories grow fuzzy, we forget where we put things. With each passing year, it’s normal to lose a step or two. 

And yet there’s something unnatural, insidious almost, about growing older in prison. A pitiful standard of medical care is part of it, but other crippling variables outweigh the physical indignities. This is especially true for those of us who measure our time behind bars in decades, those of us with life sentences.  

I’m struggling to hold it together while falling apart. 

From inside, you catch glimpses of the outside world — through photographs, conversations, the news — as it fades further from the one you used to recognize. Not because you’re forgetting it, but because the changes have become so rapid, the differences so drastic. You can’t go home again, as the saying goes. 

If I was to return to my old house, the site where my heart set roots and my memories remain, I’d find people I’ve never met inhabiting that soil. My family, the few that are still around, have relocated to a home on a street I’ve never seen. 

The town, New Braunfels, Texas, itself has grown from 35,000 residents in 2000 to close to 100,000 residents now, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. It’s no longer the quaint and quiet community I knew, but an anonymous city of strangers to me. Everyone I knew from my youth is gone or grown, many with kids of their own now, some older than we were when those roads were our stomping grounds. 

People, I’m told, no longer look you in the eye. They’re too accustomed to interfacing through their phones. 

Personal devices have become an electronic buffer zone, a ready shield from the contagion of human contact. Even to call someone is seen as an imposition on their personal space, a touch too immediate and intimate. 

“Just wait,” they tell me. “You’ll never go anywhere out there without your cell.”

“Please excuse me,” I reply, “if I am less than excited to exchange these steel bars for digital ones.” 

What I miss and what I desire is exactly what folks in the free world now seem so eager to escape. 

Aging in here is not only the angst of accepting the way things are; it’s the painful process of mourning what never will be. As spent calendars clutter the corners of your mind, you eventually face the harsh reality that there’s no point in hoarding them. Those lost years are not coming back. I have already buried my 20s, 30s and 40s — golden decades when dreams of a family and career should have been fulfilled. 

Freedom is the most obvious casualty of incarceration. Once you are shackled to a massive sentence, you have effectively been banned from the gene pool, exiled from adult society and all the life-giving activities that affords.

Like a mine that has been stripped of all but dust, there comes a day when our claims on the past are best left abandoned. 

My apologies if that sounds bleak. Our situation is not fully without hope, even if it is fleeting. The key lays in one’s ability to move on. Most treat their stay in prison as if their lives have been placed on pause — an enforced intermission with little long-term consequence. Perhaps such an approach is possible over a limited window, say a few months or years, where one can simply wait until it’s possible to press play again. 

But with a life sentence, that’s not an option. Your health fades, loved ones die, opportunities evaporate. You’re not waiting on a window; you’re praying a wall will inexplicably collapse. There’s only so much time you can bide for a day that may never come. 

We lifers require a different strategy. 

As the years drop away, it is not enough to merely watch them fall. They have to count for something. What has kept me going, what keeps us going, is finding meaning — a voice, a cause, a purpose — right here and right now.

When one passes the threshold into this land of the damned, the possibilities for your potential collapse into a single trajectory: failure. You have failed everyone who depended on you, everyone who loved you. Your dreams and aspirations are gone. In every way, the total of your life adds up to a null set. 

Whether explicit or assumed, conscious or not, the perception of your failure permeates every variable of the social equation — family, friends, acquaintances and strangers. Your captors radiate it. If you have not already internalized your absence of value, the expectation is that you soon will.

Resistance, they want you to believe, is futile.

Finding purpose requires peering into the present abyss our past has led us to and rejecting this fate. We must cling to a fool’s faith that our sentence is not an epitaph, that what has been carved into our skin can be, if not scraped off, at least covered with fresh ink. We must possess the audacity, the hubris, to revise the narrative, to pen a new ending to our story.

That is what drives me.

It surprises people when I tell them I hate writing. I find no joy in the act and suspect that those who do are closeted masochists. But I’m not in this for pleasure. I write for a future far away and far from certain, one I have no right to but hope to earn nonetheless.

I’m writing a second chance for myself.

The alchemy of transmuting failure into freedom is fraught with frustration. But whether or not I achieve this, I cannot be content to sit passively waiting for what tomorrow may manifest. The older I get, the clearer it becomes: This life in prison might be the only one I’ll have. I must make of it what I can.

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.

Jayson Hawkins is a writer incarcerated in Texas.