The Other Death Sentence: Aging and Dying in America’s Prisons

Sep. 26, 2012 / By

New America Media , News Feature, James Ridgeway, Posted: Sep 26, 2012

Photo: The image above is part of a photo essay by documentary photographer Tim Gruber taken at the Kentucky State Reformatory and published by Mother Jones along with a longer version of the following article. Copyright Tim Gruber

SHIRLEY. Mass.–William “Lefty” Gilday was 82 and suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s when officials at Massachusetts’ Shirley Prison placed him in an isolation cell — a “medical bubble” — for throwing an empty milk carton at a guard. He spent the last months of his life alone, separated by a window from medical staff, who placed manila folders across the glass so they didn’t have to look at him—and also blocking his view.

As we get older, it is easy enough to imagine old age as a prison — the body imprisoned by illness and loneliness. But in recent months, I have been corresponding with older men in Massachusetts state prisons who are in for life — or in this case, death.

I am 75, so we share a camaraderie of sorts as we compare notes on our aches and pains and our medication regimens. They know I understand what it’s like to be growing old and facing illness and death. But they also know I have no idea what it’s like to endure life behind bars, to face the difficult end of life with no chance of ever again breathing the free air.

The men in prison want to tell me, and they want the outside world to know what their lives are like. They know full well the retribution that would likely follow for speaking with the press, but not one of my correspondents asked for anonymity.

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