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Two elderly & disabled prisoners walking down a prison hallway
Photo by PrisonImage (CC BY-SA 4.0)

As aging in prison has become more commonplace, I’ve surveyed folks locked in my Missouri prison on their thoughts about the national problem. 

I was specifically interested in two questions: What would getting released mean for you? 

And should incarcerated people who have shown remorse for their crimes, are older than 50, and are no longer a threat to the public have a second chance at freedom?

There are close to 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., and more than 140,000 of those people, according to Prison Policy Initiative, are 55 and older. States spend millions of dollars per year incarcerating aging people, who are far less likely to recommit a crime than younger people.

In Missouri, the state’s 50-and-older prison population has nearly doubled since 2005, according to reporting from The Columbia Missourian. The state’s compassionate release law allows for transfers of terminally ill prisoners to nursing homes, but there are few options to attain freedom for older people with long sentences. Legislators recently considered opening up parole to people 65 and older who had served 30 years or more of their life without parole sentence, but the bill died. 

Robert Martin, who is in his mid-70s, said freeing older inmates would decrease costs for the state of Missouri and, more importantly, ease the pain and suffering that older inmates experience. 

”There’s no comparison between society’s medical treatment and prison medical practices,” Martin said. “[I believe that] many inmates who have died, or could have had their diagnosis treated sooner, would have received adequate treatment in society. The lack of medical treatment continues to haunt elderly inmates because many of their complaints and cries are ignored.”

In prison you have no free will. You must continuously ask permission for simple things, such as going outside or taking a shower. Phone calls are recorded and you’re constantly surveilled. The chance for a return home could alleviate some of the mental challenges of incarceration. 

Many older inmates said they felt guilty for not being present when a loved one died. Those who had lost a child or parent took it the hardest. Prison is also a burden on those who don’t have loved ones anymore, either because their family members all died or because they have simply given up on their wellbeing. Regardless, everyone agrees that freedom is priceless. People want to go fishing, camping and even grocery shopping again.

Anthony “Buck” Morris, 65, has prostate cancer. In a past life, he was an amateur boxer and coach. I, too, lost my dream of boxing due to incarceration. Even now, Morris said, he feels he could help right his wrongs by coaching amateur boxers.

Some prisoners said a return home would give them a chance to learn about advancements in technology and other changes in culture by getting to observe ordinary people in society. But especially important was the prospect of bonding with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Charles Garris is 83 with the spirit of a 21-year-old. He has a great personality and is one of the most respected and well-liked older inmates. There’s not a shred of bitterness or misery in his bones. 

He was born in the countryside, so entering confinement in his 40s was quite a life change. Garris told me he missed holidays the most. To him, these were occasions to reunite with family he had never met or hadn’t seen in a while. 

Seeing family in prison is different, he said. The hardest are family prison visits. Garris recounted how excited he was to see his granddaughter for the first time. He had only seen photos or talked to her on the phone. But during a visit he tried to pick her up. She began screaming and crying, and attempted to get away from him, while other visitors watched. 

Garris said he realized how much of a stranger he had become to someone for whom he cared so deeply. He hopes laws will change in the future to help older inmates enjoy their final years with loved ones.  

We can’t change the past, but we can make good with the little time we have left. As Garris said, people should consider forgiveness in the conversation around freeing aging people from prison. 

(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.

Antwann Lamont Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.