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Graying in Prison

There's no aging with dignity for people serving extreme sentences. Freeing them is only a start to a deeper paradigm shift.


The need to replace, reform, or abolish our present prison system could not be more persuasively demonstrated than by taking a hard look at its inhumane treatment of its rapidly aging population. In this area, I speak from personal experience.

On June 21, 1988, I was arrested in Boca Raton, Florida, for the violation of several nonviolent drug offenses. I was sentenced to life without parole, plus fifty years. I have been imprisoned since that day. Over the course of these now thirty-five years of imprisonment, I have been housed in eight different federal prisons. And although these institutions may vary from one place to the next, there is one thing that remains disturbingly consistent. They are without exception housing a rapidly aging inmate population—what has been called the “graying of America’s prisons.”

This was not the case when I was first sentenced. Many of the elderly men incarcerated with me are people I have known for decades at this point. These are men who, in their youth, displayed a bounce in their step and a spring in their gait. These men are now confined to wheelchairs and walkers. The bright light that lit their eyes has now been replaced with failing vision and failing memories. When it is time to line up for “pill line” to receive medication, the lines seem to stretch on for miles—longer every week. Many of the men pick up practically shopping bags of medications.

Most of these men are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses that took place decades ago. Many are serving life sentences without parole, or sentences so long that they may as well be life because the men will have long ago passed before their draconian sentences have run their course.

Meanwhile the Bureau of Prisons will typically only consider the possibility of a compassionate release once someone has received an end-of-life prognosis, deemed to have only weeks or months to live. And so these men—and the aging women in their own overflowing prisons—live in a gray world of hopelessness, with decidedly smaller and smaller social contacts. They are “out of sight, out of mind.”

I first began writing this essay while staying in a hospital prison facility in the South I had been transferred to so that I could receive a hip replacement. Fortunately, the doctor was excellent and the procedure went well, but while I was recovering I looked around and saw a facility full of incarcerated people who were there because they were, in one way or another, having age-related health problems. My hip was certainly age-related: I had no congenital issues with it. I keep active and enjoy playing tennis. I simply had experienced age-related degeneration of the joint.

When an inmate is prepared for surgery, they are still shackled—waist, hands, and legs. This is done regardless of their condition or their age. I need you, in other words, to imagine a hospital of elderly grandfathers and grandmothers, shackled to their beds. Now imagine this repeated throughout the country in the numerous medical facilities required to care for the prison system’s aging population.

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Shackling is particularly horrible for elderly inmates. For many, it is already a challenge merely to walk. After decades of poor or nonexistent medical care, many are now in the hospital because they have joints that are to the point of being just bone on bone. They live in a constant state of excruciating pain. And as they await joint replacement surgery, they are shackled. They can often barely move—but they are shackled. Seventy, eighty, even ninety years old, the sentiment seems to be: If you wanted to be treated gingerly, then you shouldn’t have come to prison.

Of all of the shackling, what tends to produce the greatest pain for these men and woman is the shackling of one’s ankles. Whether they are loosely shackled or firmly and tightly shackled, the shackles will, sooner or later, cut into an inmate’s ankle. To be shackled to your bed awaiting major surgery, or recovering from it, means that any degree of comfort is virtually impossible. You will not be able to get comfortable in that bed.

This—elderly people shackled in hospital beds—is what I need the public to picture when they hear the seemingly abstract term “mass incarceration.” This is the current state of our prisons.

On the unit where I live and in the one right across from me, there are four great-grandfathers. Veronza Bowers is seventy-eight years old and has been imprisoned since 1973. Wayne Porter is seventy-eight years old and has been imprisoned since 1983. Terry Conners is eighty years old and has been imprisoned since 1983. Victor Amuso is ninety years old and has been imprisoned since 1990.

Together these men have served over 161 years imprisoned. Each has been denied compassionate release. The reason? They are said to pose a danger to their communities. This bloodless assessment must’ve come from men in dark suits with flowcharts. Notwithstanding the fact that these men, and others similarly situated, pose the lowest risk of recidivism. Indeed, there is a direct correlation between low risk of recidivism and advanced age.

Fourth-stage cancer, creeping dementia, and advanced Alzheimer’s rarely change the minds of prison bureaucrats. Their pleading and prayers for relief will be returned with a bolded word stamped at the top of the cover page: DENIED! For these men to be saved from a slow death behind prison walls and barbed-wire fences, it would take only a show of humanity, a touch of grace, the employment of a quality unique to us as a species: forgiveness—justice tempered with mercy and a belief in second chances.

Over the last several years I have on occasion read the institution’s bulletin board announcing the passing of men whom I have known, talked with, and laughed with. None having been able to die in a hospice home, nor at home in the bosoms of their loving, caring families. Instead in prisons and prison hospitals, they have died surrounded by strangers and behind barbed-wire fences and forbidding brick walls. If holding these men and women to the very mouth of death is the only thing that will satiate our society’s blood lust, what does that say about the imbalance of our scales of justice?

We speak often of the cradle-to-prison pipeline, but really it is a cradle-to-prison-to-grave pipeline. And it is a ravenous, rapacious beast. It consumes disadvantaged communities whole—communities where your zip code often determines how your life unfolds. This is the reality that plays out across our country. Not dry and impersonal statistics, but living, loving, breathing men and women. Many are now elderly and have been in the maw of the beast since they were children.

I have tried here to offer a vivid depiction of what it actually means to say, abstractly, that the U.S. prison population is aging. It’s crucial that no one mistake my story, and the story of my neighbors, as anomalous. We are our country’s new norm.

We must have a paradigm shift, a rethink, a reset. This is an urgent demand. For those of us self-described abolitionists, we must be mindful that the changes we demand don’t simply become rhetorical posturing. The change we seek will not happen by the wave of a wand.

The work is in the weeds. The wall we wish to dismantle will have to be taken down brick by brick. The issue of elderly inmates is a starting point. And we are an urgent starting point, because time is ticking. But we are only a starting point. It’s like the old saying: To win by an inch is a cinch. It’s by the yard that is hard.

Time is not on our side. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s turn of phrase: “the fierce urgency of now.” In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is the thief of time. Lost opportunity literally means lost lives. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood, it often ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause her passage but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.”

Image: Wyxina Tresse/Unsplash