William “Lefty” Gilday had been in prison 40 years when the dementia began to set in. At 82, he was already suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and a host of other ailments, and his friends at MCI Shirley, a medium security prison in Massachusetts, tried to take care of him as best they could. Most of them were aging lifers like Lefty, facing the prospect of one day dying behind bars themselves, so they formed an ad hoc hospice team in their crowded ward. They bought special food from the commissary, heated it in an ancient microwave, and fed it to their friend. They helped him to the toilet and cleaned him up. Joe Labriola, 64, tried to see that Lefty got a little sunshine every day, wheeling his chair out into the yard and sitting with his arm around him to keep him from falling out.
But Lefty, who was serving life without parole for killing a police officer during a failed bank heist in 1970, slipped ever deeper into dementia. One day he threw an empty milk carton at a guard and was placed in a “medical bubble,” a kind of solitary confinement unit with a glass window that enables health care staffers to keep an eye on the prisoner. His friends were denied entrance, but Joe managed to slip in one day. He recalls an overpowering stench of piss and shit and a stack of unopened food containers—Lefty explained that he couldn’t open the tabs. Joe also noticed that the nurses in the adjoining observation room had blocked the glass with manila folders so they wouldn’t have to look at the old man…
Lefty Gilday was no ordinary inmate, but in one regard he typified a growing segment of America’s inmate population—geriatric prisoners. The United States leads the world in incarceration, with more than 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails, and the graying of this population is shaping up to be a crisis with moral, practical, and economic implications for cash-strapped governments. In recent years, a growing number of advocates—and even a handful of corrections officials and politicians—have dared to suggest that we consider setting some of these old-timers free.
As of 2010, state and federal prisons housed more than 26,000 inmates 65 and older and nearly five times that number 55 and up, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. (Both numbers are significant, since long-term incarceration is said to add 10 years to a person’s physical age; in prison, 55 is old.) From 1995 to 2010, as America’s prison population grew 42 percent, the number of inmates over 55 grew at nearly seven times that rate. Today, roughly 1 in 12 state and federal prison inmates is 55 or older.
The trend is worsening. A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that, by 2030, the over-55 group will number more than 400,000—about a third of the overall prison population.
The article goes on to tell what it is like to grow old in prison, through the story of a group of aging lifers in Massachusetts. You can read the full article here, and view a powerful photo essay by Tim Gruber, shot inside a Kentucky prison’s nursing unit, here.