The 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Edith+Eddie tells the story of Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison, who marry in their mid-90s and become known online as "America’s oldest interracial couple". More than an inspiring love story, theirs also is a cautionary and heart-breaking tale about the state of elder justice and guardianship in the US as Hill's daughters battle over her care and the wishes of the couple to remain together. More →
The NYC Elder Abuse Center welcomes Tina Maschi, PhD, LCSW, ACSW, Associate Professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service and founder and executive director of the Be the Evidence Project. Click here to read more about her research, community outreach and advocacy efforts in aging, trauma and the criminal justice system.
In this blog Dr. Maschi paints a picture of the experiences that older adults in prison face and highlights the importance of elder justice professionals understanding this complex population.
“Prison is a hard place. Pure Hell! As long as you are in khaki, you are considered non-human. The elder suffer the most because there isn’t much for them, us. I have the starts of osteoporosis and seeing how some people young and old are treated makes me suffer and deal with it. Overall it’s horrible and wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.” – Quote from ‘Mary’, 56 year old woman in prison
Recent human and civil rights reports and research suggest that the poor social and environmental conditions of confinement have devastating effects, particularly for older persons. Victimization, medical neglect, discrimination, and a lack of age appropriate services for older adults in prison exacerbate physical and mental illnesses. These conditions present as a violation of human rights and cruel and unusual punishment, and for older adults fall under the World Health Organization’s definition of elder abuse. Society is largely unaware of these concerns, and there is even less awareness of the traumatic narratives of physical, sexual, psychological and emotional abuse, exploitation and intentional or unintentional neglect that began long before these older adults reached their golden years in prison.
Below, you will find a brief discussion of data collected in my John A. Hartford Foundation and Gerontological Society of America-funded study on trauma, coping, and well-being among older adults in prison.
Life Course Trauma
“I was crippled when I was younger because my family member beat and molested me. I was tied to the basement poles beaten always, told over and over again you’re a jail bird just like your father. This was so tightly put into my head it blurred everything I saw.” – An older adult living in prison
Imprisoned older adult men and women on average reported having had three adverse life experiences that occurred in the community or in prison. “Adverse life experiences” include events such as abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, and other types of trauma. The subjective distress associated with these events, including events from childhood, often cause lingering subjective distress that influences their current state of health and well-being. Their life trajectories also suggest that a lack of access to services and justice (e.g., quality health care and legal representation) often proceeds imprisonment. The trauma of incarceration may serve to exacerbate their level of subjective distress. For more about the demographics of my sample, click here.
Trauma of Incarceration
“It’s very tough surviving prison. The provoking, the unnecessary treatment, verbal abuse and violence only adds to the original sentence term to be served. Overcrowded conditions, poor medical service, lack of interaction with Administrative Staff is stammering.” – An older adult living in prison
Participants commonly reported a profound sense of trauma and stress resulting from incarceration. These experiences included mistreatment and medical neglect by staff, isolation from family and fears about personal safety. Many participants reported minimal contact with their families while in prison, which was significant source of distress, especially when a family member in the community was sick or dying. Click here to read more about my findings on the trauma of incarceration.
A Challenge to Extend Elder Justice to Prisons
When examining elder abuse in the context of an older prison population it seems evident that two-dimensional thinking about individuals as elder abuse ‘victims’ OR ‘offenders’ falls short of capturing the past and current experiences of a vulnerable older adult in prison. Rather, it requires a ‘three-dimensional’ type of thinking. This 3-D perspective would integrate a historic global heightened consciousness or life course systems power analysis, which includes life course perspective, systems and power and oppression theories for assessment, prevention and intervention.
I challenge elder abuse professionals to consciously extend in thought and practice the notion of adult protections, elder justice and human rights to older adults in prison. Many older adults in prison have experienced a lifetime of cumulative injustices and disparities that are compounded by incarceration. Punitive criminal justice practices and policies, such as strict family visiting policies, the use of solitary confinement, and placement in general population may place older adults at increased risk for mental and physical decline and victimization. As a society, we must take a stand against violence in whatever setting it occurs, including prisons, because violence begets violence.
Incorporating a humane and holistic approach to care is especially important when working with an older prison population, who often have complex trauma histories and a diminished likelihood of recidivism. Older adults are less of a threat to public safety than their younger counterparts. Additionally, we must think differently when members of the human family commit a crime. What is largely missing in society’s consciousness are conceptions of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness – all of which are even more difficult to evoke when people in prison are considered numbers and not human beings. This discussion should be brought to communities responsible for addressing the needs of those who are victims of crimes as well as those who have committed them. Therefore, I am calling for a ‘meeting of the minds,’ which is described below.
A Meeting of the Minds
The Be the Evidence Project will hold a ‘just dialoging’ event to begin multidisciplinary discussions amongst victim and criminal justice service providers and community members around understanding the needs of this unique population. Click here for more information.
Click here to view a list of references.
Dr. Maschi is an associate professor of Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service and founder and executive director of the Be the Evidence Project. Click here to read more about her research, community outreach and advocacy efforts on aging, trauma and the criminal justice system. Dr. Maschi can be reached at email@example.com.