Aging In Prison

Jessica Earnshaw

2015 - 2016

The number of people 55 and older serving time in federal and state prisons has tripled since 2007. The majority of those who make up the aging inmate prison population are incarcerated for violent crimes.

These older prisoners are the least likely to be paroled even though they pose a low risk of future violence, this is because parole boards increasingly evaluate their decisions on release based on crime severity and crime type.

In Maine, nearly one of every six prisoners is over the age of 50. Memory loss, chronic illness and physical disability have become challenges for staff at Maine State Prison, who have to balance accommodating for those prisoners while maintaining prison operations.

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  • Albert, 82, is the oldest and longest serving inmate in Maine State Prison. He grew up in foster care and has been in and out of prison since he was 16. "If I wanted something in life at three years old I had to take it," he says. "If I needed food I had to take it. If I wanted a drink of water I had to take it. It wasn't given to me, you know."

  • Prisoners walk to the lunchroom at Maine State Prison in Warren, Maine. This “mass movement” is part of a coordinated dance every prison carries out as staff tries to ensure population blocks move safely to meals, rec time, and back again.

  • Robert, 70, looks out his cell window. He has spent nearly 30 years in prison after being convicted of murder. In his free time, Robert mentors younger prisoners who have come in with drug addictions, something he's very passionate about.

  • At Maine Correctional Center, Norma, 76, makes her bed in what used to be a closet. Norma requested that she be separated from the younger female prisoners, who, she says, are too loud and give her anxiety. A fellow inmate made the blanket for her.

  • Norma cleans her teeth after breakfast.

  • Albert is patted down by security as he arrives in the medical area to get a blood test. He pulls out a small piece of paper with a drawing of a pipe on it and says to the security guard, "What is this?" The guard replies, "That's a pipe!" And Albert cracks up laughing. "What's wrong with you? This is a piece of paper!"

  • Norma, 76, spends a lot of her time coloring in prison. Many of the incarcerated women who live with her affectionately refer to her as "Grams", and give her coloring books when they have them. Norma has been in prison for 14 years and has never had a visitor. She was convicted of hiring a hit man to kill her husband, a case that remained unsolved for 20 years.

  • Robert is in the prison medical area four times daily for respiratory problems. Prison systems across the country are facing a crisis as their populations gray with rising medical costs a factor in the growing costs of incarceration nationwide.

  • Steven, 63, works in hospice every day. As a hospice worker he has received over a 150 hours of training. "I get a lot of joy, a lot of inner joy for doing for others - that's something that's changed. I used to do it from a distance, but now I'm more there and present. I get a lot of joy by being there for others, helping others."

  • Albert (right) plays chess with another inmate. Wheelchair-bound, Albert rarely travels farther than 30 feet from his cell. When he does "travel" he plays chess, boils water for tea, or goes to the guard desk to pick up one of his three meals, which he eats in his cell.

  • Steven tries his best to stay healthy in prison. He works out daily, runs the prison track in warmer months, and buys his food from the commissary in order to avoid prison meals.

  • At 82, Albert is the oldest and longest serving inmate in Maine State. He's classified as high risk because he has successfully escaped four times.

  • In Albert's cell, notes and pieces of writing are everywhere. He once spent ten years in solitary confinement, which he says he got through by reading, writing, and designing a house.

  • "I was always into arguments, drinking, and drugging," Robert says of his crime. "It was the spur of the moment that I done it. As soon as I done it, I knew what I done wrong, but I couldn't change it. Today I don't get into arguments. If things aren't going my way right now, I just turn around and walk away."

  • Every few weeks, adult dogs and puppies come into Maine State Prison from shelters. The men share their cells and train them in order to give them a better shot at being adopted.