As a Prison Fills With Wheelchairs and Walkers, an Eldercare Collective Forms

    From our table in the prison day room at South Central Correctional Facility in Tennessee, my friends and I can look out over the cells in our living unit. We count 12 wheelchairs and four walkers parked out front.

    Many older prisoners here have no source of income nor anyone else to care for them. To support them, and each other, those of us seated around the table have formed an eldercare collective. Each month, members pledge what funds they can spare from their own accounts in order to cover basic needs that many struggle to afford from commissary. Those of us at the table have gathered to go over our budget this month and make a plan for purchasing the items requested.

    Cleo, 68, produces the slips of paper that have been handed to him since the last meeting. “We have 13 guys who need the most help this month,” he said. “They’re out of a lot of shit.”

    The list includes:

    • DENTURE CREAM—$6.45
    • SOAP—$0.85
    • DEODERANT—$2.52
    • RAZORS (10-pack)—$1.37
    • LOTION—$3.65
    • COUGH DROPS—$1.11
    • STAMPS—$0.68 each

    Each item has been requested by multiple people.

    “I’m not even going to mention the requested food items,” Cleo said. “I know we don’t have the money.”

    The collective has about 20 members. Most are over 55, but not all. This month, it looks like we have about $90 altogether. The Sensodyne, lotion, razors and stamps have to go. The rest, we think we can cover.

    “Got a life sentence, so I’m fucked. Can’t even afford to buy a damn bar of soap.”

    Many necessities, like the toothpaste and hemorrhoid ointment and denture cream, are limited to one item per order per person. Prisoners aren’t allowed to share commissary items with one another, which can put us in a difficult situation, especially with expensive items like the Sensodyne. Copays anytime you need to go to medical are $3, and we are also prohibited from covering those costs for one another. CoreCivic, the private prison operator to which the Tennessee Department of Correction outsources our facility, did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.

    There was a six-month drought without hemorrhoid ointment, which we were able to successfully petition for commissary to stock once more. Other items, we go without. Or make do with makeshift versions, like with eyeglass cushions. Of course, there’s still the problem of eyeglasses themselves costing $5.

    “I paid Social Security tax for over 30 years, can’t draw a damn cent of it,” Gerald, 66, told Filter. “Got a life sentence, so I’m fucked. Can’t even afford to buy a damn bar of soap. It’s humiliating.”

    Gerald uses a wheelchair, and like almost all the older prisoners here is not eligible to have a job. To get on the job registry you have to meet certain minimum requirements, like being able to lift 10 lbs, even to be assigned a sedentary job doing paperwork. Some get one of the posts over in medical, wiping down phones and such for 17 cents an hour, but the rest are not so lucky.

    “They assigned me an ‘inmate helper’ [who’s] supposed to push me around to get chow, go to the pill window, or whatever. He gets paid 50 cents an hour,” Gary, 66 and also using a wheelchair, told Filter. “I get paid nothing, ’cause I don’t have a job. It pisses me off.”

    Kendrick, 64, recalled how he used to see people asking for spare change on the streets and wonder how their lives had gotten to that point. “I tell you, it’s easier than you think,” he told Filter. “I’m a grown-ass man begging for basic needs.”

    “Hell, I can’t use toothpaste. I need something to hold my dentures in my head so I can eat.”

    For prisoners with no job, no outside support and $0 to their name, the most they can hope for from the state is a monthly hygiene kit: body wash, one small bar of soap and one small tube of toothpaste.

    “Hell, I can’t use toothpaste. I need something to hold my dentures in my head so I can eat,” Thaddeus, 67, told Filter. “State takes my money for old court fees. Of course, I don’t have none to give them.”

    In addition to being able to afford basic necessities like food and hygiene items, most of us want to be permitted to go to work, to have a purpose in life and something to make the days here feel more full. Many have artistic talent, and would love to paint and help make the place we live in more bearable. No one wants to feel reduced to wheelchairs and walkers.

    “I just wish the world could see who I’ve become, instead of only remembering what I was,” Perry, 68 and also using a wheelchair, told Filter.

    “The state didn’t give me a life sentence, but it wants to take all my life from me,” Reginald, 68, told Filter. Four years ago he went for parole consideration, only to be deferred for two years. When he went back, he was told another two years. This was based on the “seriousness” of his original conviction.

    “How can that ever change? I go up again when I’m 70.”

    He’s been incarcerated for 32 years. Most of the collective members reached by Filter have served a comparable length of time. Kendrick and Perry have been incarcerated half their lives.

    It’s not hard to see how prisons became the new nursing homes.

    Excessive sentencing. Parole that has been underutilized or abolished. Mandatory minimum laws. Truth in sentencing laws. It’s not hard to see how prisons became the new nursing homes. In fact there is a maximum-security prison with an assisted living unit, over in Nashville.

    Nearly one in three people serving life sentences in the United States today are over age 55. In a few years, one-third of the entire US prison population will be over 55. Here in our living unit of 128 people, nearly half already are. A few are in their 80s.

    In most states, people sentenced to life with the possibility of parole must serve around 25 years before they can be considered for parole. In Tennessee, where I’ve been incarcerated for the past 28 years, we must serve at least 51 years. Research has suggested that for each year spent in prison, life expectancy drops by two; the idea that people will survive 51 years in prison and then go home is not a serious one.

    I’m lucky I can crochet, [otherwise] I’d starve to death in this hellhole,” Alberto, 72, told Filter. “I at least sell enough to buy stuff I need and some commissary. When my arthritis gets too much for me to crochet, I’m checking out, if you know what I mean.”

    We consider ourselves fortunate to have community. Members of the collective deliver the items they paid for themselves, and because of this many meals that would have been eaten alone are instead shared. The collective gives us hope that good things are still possible, but we know we are the exception rather than the rule. Most people in our position face the prospect aging in prison alone.

    “If it wasn’t for the generosity of the collective, I don’t know what I would do,” Junior, 74 and currently using a walker, told Filter. “Life would not be worth waiting around for.”



    Photograph via Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

    • Tony has served almost three decades of a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. Before prison he lived as a closeted gay man; his Southern Baptist parents and an older brother have since died. While incarcerated he has worked as a tutor, clerk and newspaper editor. He’s also begun book clubs and writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. He writes about captivity in the hope of contributing to the prison reform movement.


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