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Aging in Prison

June 24, 2015

During the month of June we are featuring a series of posts focusing on aging from our aging-certificate faculty and current doctoral students to celebrate our new Certificate in the Psychology of Aging and Well-being.

As the prison incarceration rates continue to rise so do the ages of the imprisoned population. A 2013 report by The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, among United States prison inmates, 69,777 were age 60 and older. This has implications for mounting medical and mental health care costs and services that are needed to address the variety of emotional, physical, and cognitive concerns that occur as we age. Additionally, most correctional facilities were not designed to accommodate wheel chairs, other issues of immobility, complex medical concerns, chronic/terminal illnesses, cognitive decline, or hearing/vision impairments. Although most facilities have an infirmary to house those individuals that are no longer able to be safely monitored in the general population, this can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety to even higher degrees than is seen in the community. Issues with vision, hearing, or dementia may be mistaken as disobedience, which may result in disciplinary action.

Psychologists can provide for these individuals both while they are in prison and if/when they are released from prison. Opportunities are available for helping prisoners and parolees adjust to changes in physical and cognitive functioning, address issues surrounding identity, process existential issues, and aid in re-integration into a world that is likely very different from the last time they were in it (e.g. technological advances or lack of job skills fitting for available employment). Working with these individuals, we can provide a space in which to explore these issues.

One of the most important discussions involves the existential concerns of identity and acceptance of a life and personhood that is quite different than what they may have hoped for. These individuals have the same identity difficulties and developmental tasks as non-incarcerated folks, but do not always have the same opportunities to work through them or achieve them in this setting. Many older inmates have to acknowledge that they are likely to die in prison and need to find meaning in their lives, despite their incarceration status. Suicidal ideations are not uncommon. These are difficult conversations to have in general, but even more so when the opportunities are so limited to change the environments and people they are around every day.

At a time when most people their age are planning for retirement, grandchildren, and time with family, older inmates are acknowledging that their generativity tasks will look different. Their ability to give back to the world and next generation may include being a mentor to younger inmates and volunteering to give lectures on making better life choices. Psychologists can provide a healthy and prosocial relationship to aid in these conversations and adjustments.

If working in a prison setting is not for you, there are plenty of opportunities for advocacy efforts to release aging prisoners who are likely to old or frail to continue to be a threat to public safety, along with providing outpatient care to aid in their community re-integration.

For further reading on older populations in prisons see the links below:

American Civil Liberties Union. (2012). At America’s expense: The mass incarceration of the elderly. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/elderlyprisonreport_20120613_1.pdf

Anno, J., Graham, C., Lawrence, J. E., & Shansky, R. (2004). Correctional health care: Addressing the needs of elderly chronically ill, and terminally ill inmates. Retrieved from U. S. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections website: http://static.nicic.gov/Library/018735.pdf

Fellner, J. (2013, August 18). Graying prisoners. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/19/opinion/graying-prisoners.html

Human Rights Watch. (2012). Old behind bars: The aging prisons population in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/usprisons0112webwcover_0.pdf

Le Mesurier, N. (2011). Supporting older people in prison: Ideas for practice. Retrieved from Age UK website: http://www.ageuk.org.uk/documents/en-gb/for-professionals/government-and-society/older%20prisoners%20guide_pro.pdf

PsyD_StudentToni Crocilla, PsyS, LLP (PsyD 4)

Toni is a fourth-year PsyD student at MiSPP. She provides primarily clinical forensic services to paroled sex offenders in the community, along with SPMI and incarcerated clients at Wayne County Jail. She has just accepted a supervisory psychologist position with Community Programs, Inc. managing outpatient sex offender and substance abuse programming. She has a vested interest in re-humanizing incarcerated and paroled offenders for enhanced quality of life and overall community safety.