Aging in prison: An ‘invisible’ group

Editor’s Note: This guest post is from Marc Blesoff, who facilitates aging workshops in several prisons.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world.

According to Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar, “…while sentencing options as diverse as financial penalties, atonement offerings, corporal punishment, capital punishment and even death directly by the hand of G-d are found in the Torah, the punishment of “incarceration” as we know it is nowhere to be found in traditional Torah-based Jewish law.”

Three years ago I ended my career as a criminal defense attorney. Since then, I have been facilitating both Wise Aging Workshops (from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality) and Conscious Aging Workshops (from the Institute Of Noetic Sciences, IONS).  These programs are extremely compatible with one another and both highlight the opportunities to live well all the way through our last third of life.

Last March, as a pilot program, I had the opportunity to facilitate an 8 week IONS Conscious Aging Workshop program at a Federal Prison. I had been in and out of jails and prisons for over thirty years to visit my former clients, most of whom had been young. Now I sensed a circle closing as I went back inside to work with men my own age or older. I studied all possible mitigating factors to reduce sentence.

According to Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) data, inmates age 50 and older are the fastest growing segment of its inmate population, increasing 25 percent from 2009-2013. By contrast, during the same period, the population of inmates 49 and younger decreased approximately 1 percent.

The prison workshop group ranged in age from early 50’s through early 80’s. The thirteen of us met for two hours each week in a cinder block gym, sitting in a circle on plain plastic chairs behind locked doors, surrounded outside by barbed wire.  We focused on a different topic each week, including: self-compassion, forgiveness, life review, transformative practices and ‘death makes life possible’.

One point that emerged very quickly and consistently was the similarity between being a ‘con’ and being in our last third of life. Both groups become second-class citizens. Both groups become invisible. Both groups tend to get warehoused. Both groups lose relationships and have diminished visitation. And both groups tend to be lumped into stereotyped categories.

Just like un-incarcerated workshop participants, the prison participants were hungry to talk about their personal experiences, their fears and even some joys about aging, and they spoke from the heart. Through the eight weeks, I noticed the sprouts of a safe, sacred space emerging behind the bars and barbed wire.

One week, I wanted the group to see a TED Talk, so we had to meet in a room with a CD player/video screen. Internet technology is not accessible to the inmates. In this room we sat on cloth upholstered chairs around a large wooden table. After the TED Talk, during our discussions, I noticed three of the participants exchanging smiles and chuckling. I interrupted and asked what was going on. They kind of sheepishly glanced at one another and one volunteered that he hadn’t touched a real wooden table in over 10 years. Another said it had been seven years since he’d last sat on an upholstered chair.

During the final session, I set aside time for some evaluation and summing up. One of the participants commented that “it’s really noisy in prison, people like to talk, talk, talk, but this was a sharing group, not a talking group.” Another said that “we shared vulnerability through our self-imposed protective veneer.” And another participant said, “We trusted you, Marc, and in trusting you we could trust each other.”

In an effort to generate data regarding this pilot program, I administered pre- and post-program surveys supplied by IONS. The Applied Mindfulness Process Scale (AMPS) evaluates decentering and both positive and negative emotion regulation. The AMPS Total Score increased significantly in the 12 participants from before to after the program, as did Decentering, Positive Emotion Regulation and Negative Emotion Regulation. These results are very promising and warrant future research.

It is no surprise that the ageism that runs so deep in our culture raises its ugly head amongst the rapidly growing aging prison population. Several prisoners asked the rhetorical question, “what is a 75 year old inmate who walks with a cane going to do with a GED class or a job training program?” That is the only programming currently available to them and it is virtually worthless.

In its February 2016 report, The Impact of  an Aging Inmate Population on the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General states unequivocally that the BOP does not provide any programming opportunities specifically addressing the needs of aging inmates. This scathing report also details how both the physical infrastructure and the staffing of federal prisons do not address the needs of inmates over 50 years of age.


About the Author

After thirty plus years as a criminal defense attorney, Marc has been facilitating Wise Aging and Conscious Aging Workshops, appreciating the beauty of relationships and learning “that the line I called the horizon does not exist and sky and water, so long apart, are the same state of being.”

He attended Bowdoin College, The Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, and Northwestern University.

He is married forty years, and has three children and one grandchild.


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