Ageing in Prison: The ‘other life sentence’?

James Ridgway’s recent piece in Mother Jones brings clearly into view the challenges faced by elderly inmates facing lengthy periods of incarceration. His article opens by describing the situation of William “Lefty” Gilday, who 

“had been in prison 40 years when the dementia began to set in. At 82, he was already suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and a host of other ailments, and his friends at MCI Shirley, a medium security prison in Massachusetts, tried to take care of him as best they could. Most of them were aging lifers like Lefty, facing the prospect of one day dying behind bars themselves, so they formed an ad hoc hospice team in their crowded ward. They bought special food from the commissary, heated it in an ancient microwave, and fed it to their friend. They helped him to the toilet and cleaned him up. Joe Labriola, 64, tried to see that Lefty got a little sunshine every day, wheeling his chair out into the yard and sitting with his arm around him to keep him from falling out.

But Lefty, who was serving life without parole for killing a police officer during a failed bank heist in 1970, slipped ever deeper into dementia. One day he threw an empty milk carton at a guard and was placed in a “medical bubble,” a kind of solitary confinement unit with a glass window that enables health care staffers to keep an eye on the prisoner. His friends were denied entrance, but Joe managed to slip in one day. He recalls an overpowering stench of piss and shit and a stack of unopened food containers—Lefty explained that he couldn’t open the tabs. Joe also noticed that the nurses in the adjoining observation room had blocked the glass with manila folders so they wouldn’t have to look at the old man.”

Ridgway goes on to note that as of 2010, state and federal prisons in the US housed more than 26,000 inmates aged 65 and older and nearly five times that number aged 55 and up, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. He points out the significance of both numbers, since “long-term incarceration is said to add 10 years to a person’s physical age; in prison, 55 is old”. From 1995 to 2010, as America’s prison population grew 42 percent, the number of inmates over 55 grew at nearly seven times that rate. Today, roughly 1 in 12 state and federal prison inmates is 55 or older.

Ridgway’s work draws on themes explored by criminologist Azrini Wahidin in her work on the passage of prison time, and the sense of acceleration of ageing whilst in prison, and it also draws attention to the carceral ‘timespace’ of imprisonment, which I explore in a forthcoming paper in Geografiska Annaler B. By bringing debates over experiential time within human geography and criminology/prison sociology into dialogue with one another, this paper draws attention to the imperative of considering time in the geographical study of incarceration. Informed by an understanding of space and time which sees them as analytically inseparable from each other (‘TimeSpace’), it highlights overlapping temporalities in a carceral context, and in demonstrates both the significance of perceived control over time, and the experience of the lifecourse, when past, present and future are viewed through each successive ‘now’ in a context where (clock) time ‘moves on’ but space is fixed.

Ridgway’s piece highlights the specific challenges of incarceration for some elderly inmates, which emphasise the importance of considering the embodied experience of ageing in understanding the personal experience of imprisonment:

“Lifer John Feroli told the following story in one of his letters: “A guy in his 70s I knew personally was in the [solitary confinement] unit because he failed to stand for the afternoon count. He was on the third floor of the housing unit, he was partially paralyzed from a stroke and the batteries in his hearing aid were dead and he never heard the announcement for Count Time.” Another convicted murderer, 73-year-old Billy Barnoski, wrote me in April to report that he was in solitary after a younger cellmate jumped him and beat him up. His friends came to his aid, there was a melee, and four people were thrown in the hole. Barnoski suffers from a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, which is treated with a blood thinner called coumadin. He also has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, shingles, and severe arthritis in his back and neck. He takes 25 pills daily. “There have been many times, so many, that they simply say, ‘We haven’t got that med today,'” he writes. “Mind you it has been heart meds just last week. Locked in this hole without necessary meds is torture.”

With ever longer sentences and increasing incarceration rates, the number of elderly inmates is rising, Ridgway’s article also asks whether the US can afford to incarcerate persons with the particular needs described above. However, as he also points out, there are few prison hospices nor immediate plans to build any. “By 2020, according to the state’s DOC Master Plan, Massachusetts will need three “new specialized facilities” to house an estimated 1,270 prisoners with medical or mental health issues that would preclude them being housed in “regular” prisons. “We don’t have have a position on compassionate, geriatric, or any other type of release,” a DOC spokeswoman told me via email. “That’s up to the Legislature.””