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The prison population of people 55 and older has tripled over the last two decades.
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.

Crime is a young man’s game, but prisons aren’t. 

The prison population of people 55 and older has tripled over the last two decades. The same trend holds true where I’m incarcerated, in California. My state has gone from having people 55 and older make up 3% of the prison population (4,900 people) in 2000, to 16% (20,353 people) in 2019, according to the latest available data by the state. 

At 61 years old, I am a member of this graying prison cohort. I’ve been incarcerated 17 years, so I wasn’t always a part of the prison retirement scene.

There are now so many old men in my facility that I sometimes wonder: Where are the young ones? This has to be because of the long sentences tossed around like confetti 20 years ago. Laws are slowly starting to change; in 2018, California instituted elderly parole

But it’s hard to tell if these changes are due to a new morality in the air, or because of the strain placed on California’s budget to house us. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the average annual health care cost for an incarcerated person is $34,135. But the average annual cost for someone older than 50 is $68,270. 

Where does all that money go? Diabetes treatment, for one, which I witness daily as men in my facility form a long line two to three times a day to receive insulin shots. That’s not to mention the costs associated with hypertension, high cholesterol, special diets, walkers, wheelchairs, diapers for those in wheelchairs, surgeries, dental care, orthopedic shoes, CPAP machines to help people breathe when they sleep, and inmate caregivers who assist prisoners with disabilities.  

With age, studies show, men become less aggressive and less violent. Some say that’s because of a drop in testosterone levels. I say it’s because we become more cautious, mature and level-headed.

Inside, there is a healthy fear that younger men will prey on us older men. I remember an incident that occurred close to a decade ago. I witnessed a barber, who was around 60 years old, attempt to fend off four much younger men. For a while he managed, but eventually he got tired and they pounced on him. 

Some people are so afraid of getting their property stolen that they pay for protection. This isn’t like a gangster movie, where thugs come weekly and demand their cut. It’s more like a young man approaching an older one and offering him full protection. The older man might put $10 to $20 onto the younger man’s commissary list every month for peace of mind. 

In general there is an unwritten code about “respecting your elders,” but this predatory behavior still happens. 

I try to make the best of my situation. I exercise daily, watch what I eat, get plenty of rest, take vitamins, attend self-help groups and study for my college courses. When I receive photos of friends and family who are free, I must admit that they look old, as if freedom ages them at a more rapid pace. In contrast, they tell me I look “preserved.” 

Some research points to accelerated aging in prison. But maybe without the stress of bills, a mortgage, traffic, mass shootings and inflation, you can actually gain a few years of life. There are no cigarettes, cognac and pork in prison, and maybe that’s a blessing more than a curse. Maybe I’m just lucky. 

I now have three granddaughters: a set of 10-year-old twins and my youngest, who is 7. While talking to all three of them on a video visit over one weekend, my youngest said, “Grandpa, when you get out, are you gonna come live with us?” 

I closed my eyes hard and looked off into the distance, to hold back the tears. When my granddaughter said “when you get out,” that meant that she knew I was “in.” That embarrassed and saddened me. I have been incarcerated her entire life, and yet to know that she still loves me enough to want me to live with them once I’m home overwhelmed me. 

The oldest twin asked, “Why are you crying, Grandpa?” 

“Because I’m happy.” 

She stood there, as if suspended in time, trying to connect “happy” and “prison.” Finally she came to a rational understanding. “Happy to see us?” 

I smiled. “Very happy to see you.” 

When I come home, I imagine many things will be unrecognizable to me. Many places I used to frequent will have changed management or been torn down. People I once knew will have passed. But no matter what, coming home is ultimately a good thing. When that moment arrives, I don’t want any trouble. I just want to go to the park, kick my shoes off and watch my grandbabies blow bubbles.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

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.

Walter Hart is a writer incarcerated in California.