Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Pennsylvania state capitol building in Harrisburg
Photo by appalachianview on Depositphotos

The structure of prison may be intended for corrections, but it isn’t correct how older people are treated here. Aging people are met with coldness and disregard, and they receive inadequate health care. 

I have peers inside who have been in prison since I was in junior high school, back in 1976. They require extensive medical attention yet receive care that is basic at best, and questionable at worst.

One man in my prison has been incarcerated for more than five decades. In the last couple of years, I have witnessed him decline, from walking around on his own to using a cane, then a walker and finally a wheelchair. In the summer of 2022, he was transferred to a medical ward that will hopefully better accommodate his age and deteriorating health. 

There are substantial increased costs associated with caring for the aging population, which society has already deemed as throwaway people. Maybe our health care in prison is also considered throwaway. 

Many older people are concerned about how to handle losing their independence. Once you need a wheelchair and another inmate has to push you around, you become an easy target for exploitation. A guy might say, “I’ll push you to the yard if you pay for this-or-that in commissary.”

I have been confined for 24 years myself. It is sad watching so many men deteriorate from old age, complications from diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and lack of respect. Too often, for example, our complaints about the cold temperatures in our cells are ignored.

I’ve experienced my own sad side effects of aging while incarcerated. Pains in the joints, creaking in the knees and shoulders, arthritis. I’m 59 now and in relatively good shape. I try to take care of myself, but you can only do so much with prison food, prison medical care and the overall hellscape of prison life. 

In the last few years, Pennsylvania legislators have considered legislation to curb the rise in older incarcerated people. Senate Bill 135 was introduced in the 2021 legislative session. Among many changes, the bill would have created parole eligibility for people convicted of first-degree murder after they served 35 years, and for people convicted of second-degree murder after 25 years. Meanwhile, Senate Bill 835 would have also expanded parole eligibility, allowing prisoners older than 55 with either 25 years or half of their sentence served (whichever was less) to petition for a state parole board hearing. Chronically or terminally ill prisoners also would have been able to petition for a hearing, regardless of how much time they had served.

Sadly, the bills gained little traction. 

When I was young, the youth would listen to and respect their elders, who in turn would offer advice and teach important life skills. It is clear that the institutional prison environment does not show that kind of respect to older people.

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.

Jeffery Shockley is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.