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Old pocket watch on a chain; concept of passing of time
Photo by Rodion Kutsaiev on Unsplash

As an older inmate, I have unique wisdom to share, but also unique fears to confront.

I am a 60-year-old Black man incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility in New York.

I have served more than 10 years of a 16-years-to-life sentence. I have chronic medical issues. I live in an aggressive environment that is hostile for reasons that are both obvious and head-scratching. 

Many aspects of prison worsen the quality of life for those of us 50 and older. For one, there is poor and inadequate access to medical care. We are served salty soybean entrees that lack sufficient nutrition. And rehabilitation and growth are rarely an emphasis in prison programming.  

Nevertheless, I am grateful to struggle through each new day.

Since I was 15, I have been on probation, incarcerated, paroled and back again. I grew up poor. I suffered childhood trauma. I’ve battled addiction. But it’s all led to my spiritual and psychological awakening. I have gained an interior freedom and sense of self that had escaped me for much of my life. 

I take full ownership of why I’m in prison. The things that happened to me long ago now act as a deep well of empathy for others dealing with personal and internal struggles. My past travails are now wisdom I share in hopes of planting seeds that will be nurtured in some younger person’s spiritual garden. I am sober, and because I am consciously and decidedly sober, I believe I am no longer vulnerable to an undoing.

In prison, I am able to interact with younger men, and I am received in most spaces with grace and respect. There are countless other men 50 and older who silently waste away in their cells, seemingly forgotten. They are victims of failing mental and physical health, some in wheelchairs, some dying of terminal diseases. They are the victims of a system that shrugs off its aging incarcerated men and women as the collateral damage of time and sentence.

My fears span two realities: one behind the wall, one on the other side of it.

I have a parole board hearing coming up later this decade. Upon my presumed release, I would have to work until I die. Although this is true for a lot of baby boomers, it is a scary prospect for me. As a news junkie, I process what is going on in the world through my own progressive filter. I have grave concerns about climate change, war, the political divide — which often speaks to racial and class divisions — economics and work, affordable housing, medical care, and my physical ability and safety going forward.

To age in prison is to confront one indignity and cruelty after another. I am under no illusion that, in my lifetime, there will be the systemic change necessary to address the unjust treatment of the incarcerated. That being the case, perspective is everything. Here’s an axiom I have employed with some measure of success: Spend no time on things beyond my control. 

Time is a funny thing. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow hasn’t happened. Knowing that requires I do life one day at a time, always aware of the potential of tomorrow. This approach reduces my fear to a low-grade tension. It is a useful tension that keeps me grounded in the moment, while also continually seeking knowledge about yesterday, today and the future. I engage with the young and the old, mining the richness in people, places and things, all of it informing the way I live and guiding me into my tomorrows.

It is the hope of things unseen that allows me to move forward with purpose, even if that movement is not as quick as it used to be.

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.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.