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The crumbling, aging walls walls of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia
Photo by Dudva (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When I first started my life sentence more than 30 years ago, healthy young men were walking around the prison yard with bodybuilding muscles. 

Things have changed dramatically since then. Today, I see men walking around the prison yards with medical assistive devices. 

Gone are muscular men taking photos without their shirts on. What replaced them are men wearing green disability vests over their prison blues, using canes, walkers, wheelchairs or walking sticks. 

When I asked older men here at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison about their health conditions, I received mixed answers. 

A 59-year-old man named Mike Keys told me he would not classify anything that he had experienced in prison as being good. Because of his captivity, he said, he feels a certain amount of misery every day.

“Freedom is everything, prison is nothing,” Keys said. “Justice is my struggle.” 

But he also believes prison prevented him from looking older like other men his age because he never did drugs or alcohol. He exercises regularly. He believes that if he could hurry up and get remarried and have family visits, then that would change the whole prospect of aging. 

I asked Keys what should be done about the aging boom inside prison. 

He told me that the state prison system should consider the possibility of opening retirement prisons for people ages 65 and older, and that parole boards should try to process more older people. 

“A person who has done a certain amount of time and does not pose a very serious threat to society should be given a last chance to regain their freedom,” Keys said.

Angel Ortega, 56, is an old friend of mine who I first met in another prison. Ortega, who uses a walker due to chronic pain, told me he faces daily challenges in prison because of his age. He says he has to keep an eye out for people walking too close to him, not knowing their motives. 

Older people in prison should have the right to single-cell status, Ortega said, so they won’t get abused or stressed out. 

Sean Hughes, 62, had back surgery and is a wheelchair user, but he told me he doesn’t believe prison made him age faster. 

“Time and events seem to go slow day to day,” Hughes said.

He does, however, feel invisible to staff members when it comes to his medical needs. 

Comparing the problems of an older person and a younger person in prison, Hughes emphasized that there is a lack of meaningful counseling programs and no relevant or consistent therapy for people with chronic pain. 

Hughes pointed out that stress is a known killer — a cause of strokes, heart attacks and mental health breakdowns. He feels that being around people close to his age would help him as he grows older in prison.

Hughes said that the California Health Care Facility in Stockton is the only prison that had programs or staff to help him navigate aging. While here at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, he relies on a “pusher” to get him to the pill line and back, whether that’s an institutional disability assistant or a regular inmate. 

Hughes feels that prisons should have an age limit of 70 and provide special programs for older people.

“[The] elderly should be let out of prison, unless they pose a danger to society,” he said.

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.

Tue Kha is a writer incarcerated in California. He is working on a novel titled "Kormic."