“The challenge is that we can’t lose compassion or cross a line,” a nurse told me, her tone warm and professional.
It’s just one of the many health challenges unique to prison populations. Prisoners age faster than those of us outside. “Incarceration not only compounds existing health issues and heightens the risk of further health problems,” states the Osborne Association’s 2014 paper, “but—most alarmingly—has a deteriorating effect on the bodies of incarcerated people.” Incarceration may slow down a prisoner’s perception of time, but it accelerates his body’s. Incarceration takes more years out of a life than just those required by a sentence. Lack of proper mental and physical health care and abnormally high levels of stress and anxiety can make fifty-year-old prisoners’ bodies seem 10 to 15 years older. Of prisoners over 50, 40, to 60 percent have mental-health challenges.
Prisons weren’t designed for elders, either. They require that prisoners climb into bunks and haul themselves up stairs or across long distances. Meals must be eaten in 12 minutes. Daily routines are strictly timed and regimented; one error—due to dementia, disorientation, physical inability, or pain—and punishment is delivered. The physical discipline of prison, meant to rehabilitate the weak, evil, or selfish mind of a criminal, is a questionable approach to reform, at best. For an elderly population, it looks like abuse. But renovating America’s prisons to meet the needs of an aging population isn’t in the budget. Dealing with the needs of prison elders will take a variety of approaches, none of which look easy.
The costs of prison health care are, like the costs of public health care, rapidly increasing. The United States currently spends about $16 billion—more than the entire Department of Energy budget—on incarceration of prisoners over the age of fifty. While it costs about
$34,000 a year to keep an able-bodied prisoner locked up, elders can cost as much as twice that amount.
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Compassion is a complicated thing. It’s an emotion, both abstract and concrete, shown both in our broad support for groups or issues and in the care that we give those around us. It’s easier to care for people when you trust them, but also when you know you have power over them. When you know they need you.
Trust or safety, then, can alter our levels of compassion. I felt guilty for not having more compassion for Moore, a prisoner I met at Mohawk, who later wrote to me, and I didn’t know if it was because of him or because of where I met him. I didn’t want him to be in pain. I didn’t want him to be treated unfairly. But I didn’t want anything to do with him, either. That, I realized, was the line that prison medical staff people had to draw. They may use prison rules or state laws or medical ethics to draw the line. And those laws and rules may make their work easier for them. But it was an institutionalized way of grappling with very complicated emotions like trust and safety and even personal chemistry. Their work is made possible by an ethics, not to be confused with a universal set of moral principles. The ethics of the prison medical staff members was unique to their place of work, a prison. We can and will, as a society, argue about what the laws should be, about what our conscience should let us do.
This article has been adapted from Ann Neumann’s book, The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America.