The demographics of U.S. prisons are changing, as are demographics outside of them: an increasing share of the population is growing old. The number of people aged 55 and older in state and federal prisons from 1999 to 2016 leapt by 280 percent, compared to an increase of just 3 percent for adults below 55. With age come other concerns, perhaps most notably mental and physical health, as well as loneliness. For incarcerated individuals, there are added twists to these concerns: lack of access to good healthcare, lack of adequate mental and physical stimulation, and isolation from friends and family. In addition, research shows the aging process is significantly accelerated by prison life, such that someone in prison may show declines similar to those of a community-dweller 15 years older.
These are among the disturbing facts that Tina Maschi, Professor of Social Work at Fordham University, and Keith Morgen, an associate professor of psychology at Centenary University, use to present a dire situation in the United States criminal justice system in Aging Behind Prison Walls: Studies in Trauma and Resilience (Columbia UP, 2020). The problem-based system with its binary view of offender and victim serves no one well, they write. It is tremendously expensive – about $16 billion of the $77 billion that U.S. state and federal governments spend annually to run correctional facilities goes to health care for older adults, while caring for an incarcerated individual 50 or older costs $68,000 per year, compared to $34,000 for someone under 50. But more importantly, there is an achingly high moral cost to the criminal justice approach, the authors contend.
The first part of the book establishes the extent and nature of the issues surrounding aging in prison. Surprisingly, it is not all a grim picture. While the authors describe the profound role of trauma in the life course of older adults in prison, they also illustrate sources of resilience for these individuals; indeed Maschi uses the term “resilience care” to move away from the stigma of a focus on trauma alone. The section is extensively supported by both quantitative and qualitative research, including the work that Maschi led in the 10-year Hartford Prison Study. That research, which included 677 interviews, introduces readers to the prison experience in the words of prison elders themselves. Maschi prefers the term “elders” as her experience as a researcher and as a social worker in prisons for 15 years led her to conclude that many older incarcerated adults achieve a hard-earned wisdom. Thus they can become true teachers of their younger counterparts as well as those of us who have never been inside prison walls.
Part II of the book expands on the concept of caring justice, giving an innovative view of how energetic and spiritual philosophies and practices can be employed as healing methods for the aging prison population. Caring justice – defined as “an individual and group consciousness that focuses on how we value, treat, and care for one another, especially older adults and other marginalized groups, including those with histories of involvement in the criminal justice system,” embraces all members of society. It is an approach that requires – as does this book – a willingness, or more accurately a desire, to allow one’s world view to shift. From that new perspective, people in prison are no less human, or deserving of humanity, than those who are not. And just as there are pathways into prison, there will be pathways back to full acceptance into society.
Ultimately, Maschi says to me in our interview, the story she and Morgen tell is the story of humanity. Aging Behind Prison Walls, she says, is for “anyone who really wants to change their life, who realizes they’re at a point where they’re looking for something and they just haven’t found it yet… There’s so much that can be learned from the story of humanity as told by the acting of all of us in this play of life, of which the current focus is almost as if we’re watching a reality TV show of older people in prison and we’re getting the opportunity to look back at it. And you’re asked a question, if you get to the end point of your life…‘What did you do with your life to show love? How did you express love?’ And you have to ask yourself, ‘how did I?’ And you have the opportunity to turn that around.”
To see some of Maschi’s music and video projects on caring justice, go here.
Rachel Pagones is chair of the doctoral program in acupuncture and Chinese medicine at Pacific College of Health and Science in San Diego and a licensed acupuncturist. Her third book, an examination of the history of acupuncture as a means of social and political revolution, is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.
Rachel Pagones is an assistant professor in the doctoral program in acupuncture and Chinese medicine at Pacific College of Health and Science in San Diego and a licensed acupuncturist.