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Growing Old in Prison

By Charlene Lane, PhD, LCSW-R, and Michele Bratina, PhD

There are typically negative connotations surrounding the words inmate, convict, and prisoner. Individuals who are incarcerated are often perceived as the recalcitrant of our society.

A recent collaborative study conducted by Charlene Lane, PhD, LCSW-R, and Michele P. Bratina, PhD, from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania departments of social work and gerontology, and criminal justice, respectively, elucidated the value of the lives of older adults who have been incarcerated for more than 20 years at four Pennsylvania state correctional institutions. There is a great deal that is still not understood about the phenomenon of growing old in prison.

Older adults interviewed believe they are a population forgotten by the larger society because they are not only old, but are also considered deviants.

The Older Adult Inmate
It would be remiss of us as professionals to remain ignorant to the needs of inmates who are older adults, especially in a country where there are an increasing number of older adults who are incarcerated. The population of individuals aged 55 and older who are incarcerated is steadily increasing (“Managing Prison Healthcare Spending,” 2013). Semistructured interviews with 91 older adults, both male and female and from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, revealed there is so much to be learned from the experiences of these individuals. Professionals from the social work, gerontology, and criminal justice fields can play a crucial role in the quality of life of older adult inmates, especially as they grapple with issues such as serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, the possibility of receiving hospice care, severed family ties, and concerns related to the well-being of their fellow inmates.

Lessons Learned
Inmates interviewed want the world to know that, despite poor decisions made in the past, their “lives matter.” Many regret making decisions that have led to their incarceration; in fact, several individuals disclosed that they “took to the streets and dealing drugs” because they viewed this path as the only real means of earning an income. There were others who became gang members at early ages and described the gang as “the only family” they ever knew.

Inmates expressed learning very hard life lessons that have inevitably resulted in their freedom being relinquished. Retrospectively, the older adult inmates interviewed clearly stated that, if given the opportunity, they would not have chosen the same path in life. Many of these older adults are self-appointed ambassadors and provide counsel to juvenile and young adult offenders who are willing to take wise counsel; their message is a clear expression of the importance of “staying off the streets” and “holding onto their faith.”

As many of the older inmates expressed some level of fear and trepidation surrounding their mortality, specifically in dealing with a terminal illness, many spoke highly of the prison hospice program.

In the Pennsylvania prison system, prison hospice is a peer-driven program where inmates provide end-of-life care for other inmates who are dying. According to the inmates interviewed, this affords them the privilege to not only die with dignity but also not to die alone. Older adult inmates have over the years formed a familial bond that is essential to their survival and well-being while incarcerated. They value connections with their peers, many of whom they have known for many years. Able-bodied older inmates play an active role in assisting their less able peers with such tasks as reading and transporting them around the facility via wheelchairs.

Inmate Lives Matter
There is so much to learn, value, and understand about the lives of older adult inmates. Older adults who are incarcerated for life have experienced many challenges, yet they believe there are lessons individuals in the “free world” can learn from their experiences, choices, and a level of compassion exhibited to their peers. Even though they are considered deviant by the larger society, they may find an increased quality of life on the inside by mentoring juvenile and youthful offenders, and by providing overall unconditional emotional support to their peers. Gerontologists/social workers as well as criminal justice professionals must comprehend the phenomenon of this growing population where services can be provided without judgment or condemnation, and where life experiences can be used to empower the path and destinies of the younger generation. Older inmates are incarcerated, but they must not be forgotten.

The Pew Charitable Trusts & MacArthur Foundation. (2013). Managing prison health care spending. Retrieved from http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2014/

— Charlene Lane, PhD, LCSW-R, is an assistant professor of social work and gerontology at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

— Michele Bratina, PhD, is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Shippensburg University.