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An elderly person's hand in a hospital setting
Photo credit: iStock

Rennetta Roland has been incarcerated since March 6, 1984. On the recent occasion of her 61st birthday, a wistful expression on her face, she reflected on other aging women inside Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma. 

“It’s like all I see in here are sad souls that don’t do anything because they’re old,” she says. “It tears me up to hear the crying most of all. At night you can hear it through the walls because it’s so quiet on the pod.” 

No one expects to see so many elderly people inside, but in my prison, as well as prisons across the country, there are old or aging people as far as the eye can see. 

Longer sentences and decreasing rates of parole help explain this troubling fact. Over the last 20 years, the number of incarcerated people age 55 and older in the United states has increased from roughly  48,000 to 154,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2019, this age cohort accounted for 63% of deaths inside state prisons. 

Out in the dayroom beyond my cell, the elderly congregate. Some sit in wheelchairs; others grasp walkers. They play cards or dominos around small metal tables, wait in various lines, or just stare off into space. 

Many of these women wake before the sun comes up and rush to reserve their place at a table or in the pill line or food line, sometimes remaining in line for several hours. I have seen women get in line for medication at 7 a.m., knowing the nurse will not arrive to pass out medication until after 9 a.m. 

Many of these women never leave the pod unless they have a medical appointment; they are afraid of missing their next dose of medication or the next food tray delivery. They sit around most of the day, trading gossip and complaints. For many of them, their support system outside has either abandoned them or died. 

Delpha Spunaugle, 73, said she doesn’t like to spend time on the pod because of the negative atmosphere. 

“I’d rather just watch my TV,” she said. “There’s nothing to do out there. I know people think I’m depressed and that I should hang out more, but I just can’t sit out there and listen to all the complaining and arguing. If I did that all the time, I’d really be depressed.” 

Tears in her eyes, Spunaugle went on to explain that she can’t talk to her children on the phone because they still harbor anger at her for coming to prison. “They don’t remember the good times, or the fact that I made sure they had school clothes and never missed a meal. … I love them so much and they act like they don’t miss me at all. It hurts.” 

The well-documented crisis of America’s graying prisons is not simply a problem confined to the patently elderly. Inside, the process of aging is accelerated, leaving virtually no one unaffected. And as a result, the fact of death, or the fear of it, looms over incarcerated people of all ages. 

Virginia Ramirez is 42, arrested at 15 on a first offense, and has been a guest of the state for 27 years. Though she received a life without parole sentence, she has been up for parole three times without success, and fears she will never be allowed to go home to her family. 

“I have been diagnosed with lupus, kidney failure and heart failure,” she said. 

Ramirez doesn’t know if the problems she currently faces with her health are entirely hereditary, or if they could have been prevented had she had access to better nutrition and a higher quality of health care over the years. But for her, the possibility of dying in prison is terrifying. 

“I feel so scared and helpless,” she said. “Not only am I afraid to die in here, but I’m also afraid to lose outside family members while I’m stuck in here. They’re waiting for me to come home, but they’re aging out there too.” 

As for me, I do anything I can to fight against the urge to roll over and give up. I was arrested at 21 years old and will celebrate my 45th birthday this summer. Though I was sentenced to life without parole for a first offense, I have never accepted the finality of that in my heart. 

I seize every opportunity to become a better person. I received my GED in prison, and this spring will earn my associate’s degree with honors from Rose State College before moving on to study for my bachelor’s. I have little reason to think the state of Oklahoma — known by some as the world’s prison capital — will ever truly see me as rehabilitated and allow me a second chance, despite a prison record that proves I am not the same person I used to be. But I persist nonetheless.  

All of this, of course, has not kept my hair from getting noticeably grayer and my joints progressively stiffer with every passing year. I feel as if I’ve held up pretty well, all things considered, but I admit it’s still jarring to pass my reflection. 

Inside, I picture myself as the same kid who was sentenced to prison more than two decades ago, even though I know I’ve grown in many ways since then. 

I’ve become a woman in prison. I’ve been forced to learn to stand on my own two feet in this harsh environment. I have learned that I am smarter, more capable, stronger and braver than I’ve ever given myself credit for. I’ve matured beyond measure and learned the importance of family. And I have privately mourned the fact that I never had the opportunity to have a child of my own. 

Some days, looking into the defeated eyes of the aged women here at Mabel Bassett, some of whom I have known for decades, I can tell they know they are here to die. Worst of all is the fatalistic attitude they’ve adopted. With the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ failing to alter the status quo, perhaps it makes sense. But the vision of this slow march to death is not the entire picture. Beneath the listless stares of these women I’ve grown to love is a feeling many of us have come to know inside prison: a deep, profound longing for the torment of captivity to finally end.

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.

Crystal Avilla is a writer incarcerated in Oklahoma.