Geriatric Prison

Prisons all over the country are trying to figure out how to deal with an aging inmate population. Consecutive sentences and aggressive prosecution of crimes that put middle-aged men in prison, have resulted in many more grandfathers spending their golden years behind bars at the New Hampshire State Prison. On sunny days, the exercise yard of the South Unit had so many guys in wheelchairs it looked more like a retirement home than a prison. There is an ever-lengthening line for medication call. The guys with white hair are becoming a majority. It can make for some interesting problems. One old guy who lived in my unit had a stroke after coming to prison. He knew where he was, but didn’t know why he was there. He couldn’t remember his crime.

"I guess I must have done it." He used to say, shaking his head.

Prison time for the elderly is hard time. It's a place where the strong prey on the weak. Old men survive by hooking-up with a younger, stronger inmate who will look out for them. These friendships often come at a price.

Charlie was 83 years old. He's was tall man with a full head of white-hair. He walked with a stiff, deliberate gait, partly the reserve and formality of his generation, and partly arthritis with a touch of Parkinson's. I've heard that the state got Charlie's daughter to testify against him by promising nursing home quality care for her Dad in a place where he would get the treatment he needs. He's been in prison ever since. Charlie’s life revolved around cell and dayroom. His associates didn’t extend much beyond his pod-mates.

Prison rules require that everyone's bed be made before 9 AM. Failure to make your bed can result in a disciplinary write-up. An unmade bed is seen as an invitation to the C.O.'s  to shakedown your house, to go through all your stuff looking for contraband. Even someone with nothing to hide hates a shakedown. They tear apart your bed and pull everything out of your footlocker. For a young man, a shakedown is an annoyance, for an arthritic old man it's a major event. It can take the rest of the day to recover some sense of order.

Charlie was having trouble making his bed. He couldn't bend over enough to reach the far side. His fingers were stiff in the mornings. He found a younger guy on his pod that was willing to make his bed each morning in exchange for an ice cream bar on canteen days. On the outside, the arrangement would have been fine. In here, it's illegal. The prison wants to discourage gambling, tobacco, drug deals, and the sale of sexual favors. All these things are bought and sold through the barter of canteen items. So, any exchange of canteen items between inmates is an infraction of the rules.

Somehow Charlie's arrangement was discovered. He was called to the office and given a write-up. His punishment, five days in the hole, was suspended. It would be imposed if he re-offended. Like many old men, Charlie has a feisty streak. He dared them to put an 83 year old in the hole. On canteen day he made it a point to buy an ice cream bar and publicly give it to his benefactor. I'd like to have heard the discussion between the C.O.'s about how to handle the situation. Charlie had called their bluff. They couldn't really make good on their threat to send him to the hole. What if he died there? Extra duty was out of the question. The guy can hardly walk. It wouldn't do any good to add disciplinary days to his minimum parole date. He's going to die in prison anyway. They called him to the office. He got another write-up. This time the punishment was 60 days loss of canteen privileges. Later that day Charlie was told to pack up his things. He was being moved to the infirmary, not as punishment, they said, but to evaluate whether he could continue to live in the general population.

I don't know whether Charlie ever got to move back to the South Unit. After all, it's not a nursing home, and that's what he really needed.