Aging in Prison

“I have thought that some of those elderly men and women are like prisoners in the nursing home. Their mental or physical health confines them to the walls of the nursing home…Jesus is waiting within the walls of the prison and nursing home, so when we come to visit these people we also visit Christ.” –Tom

This comment by a young man who visits nursing homes raises an enormously important issue—aging, especially for those in prison. But before we look at the critical issue of aging prisoners, Tom’s sense that people in nursing homes may be in a kind of prison needs our attention. A question for all of us: “When was the last time you visited someone in a nursing home?” I ask this because it strikes me that nursing homes may be the least favorite place for us to visit, even more daunting than a prison! Why? As Tom suggests, people in nursing homes may be in a kind of prison, and one we all will face some day. It is scary and we don’t want to be reminded of this. Before we look at a few of the things that can “imprison” someone in a nursing home, I want to offer a very poignant excerpt of a song from the past by a great artist, John Prine. He portrays for us an image of what it is like to grow old, and how each of us can offer a saving grace to those who are older. From the chorus of his song, “Hello In There,”

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day.
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”

Hello in there, hello…how amazing to think of a person—us someday!—in there. In other words, we are not just a bag of bones, of pains, of wasting limbs and mind. We are the Temple of the Holy Spirit that Jesus told us about. An aging person is a sort of tabernacle of God’s presence, the Body of Christ on a new kind of crucifix, one perhaps even more challenging than the one we are so familiar with. Some particular losses that aging may present us with are: Loss of freedom, loss of health, loss of companionship, maybe even loss of faith—the easy enough faith we had when we were younger and healthier with friends and family around. Now, imagine one more loss that most of us do not experience—you are in prison! What is it like to grow old in prison? Some statistics offered by Chaplain Phyllis Taylor in Philadelphia: We list them followed by a “Lord, have mercy…Christ have mercy” so they can be used as a litany of prayer rather than our being overwhelmed by them.

The population of older inmates, 50 years and up, has more than tripled since 1990. –“Lord Have Mercy!

It is estimated about 1/3 of inmates will be 55 years and older by 2030.–“Christ Have Mercy!

Inmates typically present health issues common to non-incarcerated people 10-15 years their senior. –“Lord Have Mercy!

Inmates over 55 years of age have a death rate 10x greater than those who are 25-34. –“Christ Have Mercy!

20% of the PA DOC’s population is 50 years and older.–“Lord Have Mercy!

States typically spend $27,000 to incarcerate a person/year. The cost is $70,000 for a geriatric person. –“Christ Have Mercy!

Written by Fr. Paul Morrissey, OSA