This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the Archstone Foundation.
Reader advisory: This story contains accounts of rape.
Chyrl Lamar is an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an organization with chapters in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Lamar was incarcerated in September 1986. For the next 34 years she lived at the Central California Women’s Facility, a prison in Central Valley’s Madera County. Lamar was released December 2020, at age 69. On Jan. 17, 2022, she was discharged off parole.
On top of the difficulties of prison life, as Lamar got older she began experiencing the particular difficulties of aging behind bars. One was the requirement that elders continue working, despite their mounting physical challenges and getting sick more often.
While in prison, “there’s no such thing as retirement,” Lamar said. She added the only way people at Central California Women’s Facility could get out of work was through a medical reason. Without an explicit medical reason, many had to continue working into their older years. “If you can push a broom, if you can wipe a window, you’re working.”
Lamar worked for nearly her entire time in prison, from 1990 to 2020. She was an older adult for 19 of those years. “Why should you have to do that, when you’re of age?” she asked.
While age 65 conventionally defines the beginning of older age in the U.S. population outside of prison, old age in prison is typically marked at age 50 or 55, the Epidemiological Review reports. This is because inadequate healthcare in prisons accelerates the onset and progression of many chronic conditions associated with aging.
Lamar is part of a growing population of seniors who have experienced life in U.S. prisons and jails. Since her release, she keeps in touch with other women, some older than she, who are still completing their sentences.
While Lamar is now celebrating a year and a half since her release, many older adults remain inside.
According to the Bureau of Justice, between 1993 and 2013 the number of people aged 55 or older in U.S. state prisons who were sentenced to more than one year increased by 400 percent, from 26,300 in 1993 to 131,500 in 2013. In 2020, there were around 274,000 older adults incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, the Washington, D.C.-based organization Sentencing Project reports.
In the last 40 years, changes in sentencing law and policy have created a 500 percent increase in the number of people in the prison system. The country now incarcerates more people than any country in the world. 2 million people are currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails.
The aging of the country’s prison population is largely due to the increase in sentence lengths over the past several decades, said Diana Block, a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners since 1996.
The number of people serving life sentences increased from 34,000 in 1984 to nearly 204,000 in 2020, the Sentencing Project reports. 30 percent of people serving life sentences in 2020 were age 55 or older. A report by the Osbourne Foundation projects the number of older adults living behind bars will surpass 400,000 by 2030, largely due to the fact many people are serving sentences that will carry them into their elder years.
“Imagine growing old inside a prison — that is the worst thing you could do if you want to have a healthy older age,” Block said. “All the challenges of aging are so incredibly exacerbated.” Examining the structure of sentencing is critical, she added. “You really have to talk about the fact that sentences have become more and more extreme.” With the steady rise in longer sentences over the past three decades, the population of incarcerated elders has increased drastically.
The U.S. prison system continues to insist on caging elders, despite extensive research showing low rates of recidivism among older people — the tendency of someone already convicted to be convicted again. Unlike countries that invest in support programs for people in prison to prevent reoffending, the U.S. insists on increasing sentencing lengths as a means of prevention, according to a 2021 report by the Sentencing Project.
In the U.S., “few policymakers question the logic of simply increasing lengths of incarceration rather than investing in programming and training to prepare incarcerated people to return safely to the community,” the report states. “Most American officials falsely conclude that recidivism is the result of not enough punishment and so more is applied. In contrast, the science on the efficacy of applying additional punishment as an effective deterrence is straightforward: more punishment does not lead to less crime.”
The report, authored by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project, looks at the reoffending rates of people released from prison after a violent crime conviction. Nellis is also co-author of “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences,” a 2018 book featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. The report includes research in both the U.S. and internationally, as well as testimonies from people formerly incarcerated. Organizing has gained momentum in recent years to transform the narrative around people convicted for higher-level offenses.
The report also looks into mainstream media portrayals of people convicted of more serious offenses. Such portrayals reinforce public perception of these individuals as hardened criminals incapable of change — and often neglect to examine the systemic racism embedded in the court system, which frequently leads to unjust convictions. They also ignore societal factors at play in the individual’s life and at the moment of the crime, and the possibility of a person to transform over time.
Most people in the U.S. who commit homicide are unlikely to do so again, the report finds. Overall rates of violent offending of any type among people released after a life sentence are also rare. People with violent crime convictions “are depicted as the most dangerous if released, but ample evidence refutes this.”
The report examines relationships between age and conviction for a crime, finding that “violent conduct occurs in somewhat predictable ways over the life course,” concentrating in the span of years between adolescence to mid-20s “and dropping precipitously after.” University of Maryland and Harvard researchers John Laub and Robert Sampson found that among people convicted of reoffenses, the “vast majority will stop committing crime by their 40s.”
New York state has the most elderly prison population in the country. A study published in The Crime Report found that out of 368 people convicted of murder and granted parole in New York between 1999 and 2003, 1.6 percent returned to prison within three years for a new felony conviction — none of them a violent offense. A separate study of persons released between 1985 and 2012 found fewer than 2 percent returned to custody.
“Individuals who are released on parole after serving sentences for murder consistently have the lowest recidivism rate of any offenders,” said John Carner, former spokesperson for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
“Some people released from prison will recidivate, and sometimes their crime will include violence,” writes the Sentencing Project. “When people released from prison commit crime — especially violent crime — there are good reasons to question what went wrong and who is responsible. For the most part these questions are not delved into deeply enough and the system of correction itself is rarely held accountable for its contribution.”
According to a report by the Bay Area-based organization Prisoners with Children, life in prison poses particularly harsh conditions for the elderly. Of the over 100 older women interviewed for the report, the majority reported prison medical staff were not sensitive to their needs as aging people. Additionally, prison rules and layouts make life difficult for the elderly: people are often required to drop to the ground for alarms, climb onto top bunks, move through cells without handrails, and walk long distances to dining halls.
More than half of those interviewed reported falling at least once during the span of a year, and two out of five respondents reported being injured while performing a daily prison routine.
The general conditions of confinement and limited exercise pose health risks to older people in prison, Block said. A lack of nutritional food and frequently backed-up and understaffed medical systems also make aging difficult. Time-sensitive care and access to surgeries — which become more necessary with age — are also lacking.
If an incarcerated person questions a directive by an officer they think doesn’t make sense — which has happened throughout the pandemic, due to often irrational and arbitrary rules, Block said — it is not uncommon for the prison or jail to deny the person a medical appointment as punishment.
52-year-old Ajimani Henderson is currently incarcerated in a facility in Northern California. She works as a teacher’s aide in the prison’s education department. She enjoys reading, and is training to become a peer literary mentor. Henderson is currently on a waiting list to attend college while in prison.
“I’ve been incarcerated for 26 years,” Henderson said. “Hopefully within the next year or so, I’ll be able to go home. This is my year to strive for freedom.”
Henderson is part of a weekly discussion group called Guiding Rage Into Power, “which is a very positive group,” she said. “We deal with a variety of subjects, from violence to grief. That group is one of the best groups I’ve ever been in. Tears are shed.” At the start of each session, members meditate for 10-15 minutes. “I really do like meditating,” Henderson said. “It relieves a lot of stress. As time goes on, I will get more and more into meditation.”
Henderson is a trans woman, and described the difficulties of aging while transgender in prison. She has faced beatings and rape. She was “humiliated, disrespected, and shamed.” She recalls being “disrespected by police,” who called her “faggots, punks, queers, whatever came to their mind at the time.”
Henderson remembers being “transferred from prison to prison, placed with cellies that overpowered you, and raped you. If you would go tell the police, you are considered a snitch, and you could get stabbed or even killed.” She added: “As I continued to grow older, there was so much discrimination.” She has had to “fight with the administration for protection, and to be treated fairly.”
“I would like the people on the outside to know this — being incarcerated and aging at the same time isn’t an easy task,” said Henderson. “Believe me, this journey wasn’t easy, and it’s still not over yet. You have to choose your battles; some may be easy, and some are very hard. Let them know I’m still standing!”
As Chyrl Lamar grew older in prison, she began to advocate for the needs of her elder community, who were often treated by prison officials as though in the same physical shape as younger people. She taught a curriculum to prison wardens on forms of elder abuse she witnessed.
As they navigated daily life, elders were made to withstand extreme outdoor temperatures. Lamar recalls when the weather was extremely cold or hot, prison staff would not let people come inside for shelter during scheduled times when everyone was supposed to be outside — except those who used psychiatric medication.
Similarly, after being treated at the medical building, which could only hold around 12 people, over 200 others from the same dormitory would be made to wait outside until everyone had been treated. The long wait times were particularly tough on seniors. “In extreme cold, they still wouldn’t let you in,” Lamar said. “Don’t break me down while I’m in prison.”
She also remembers how fellow women sentenced to life and life without parole continued working despite the toll it took on them as they aged — for fear of being written up by prison officials if they did not show up for work.
Lamar was incarcerated from age 35 to 69, originally on a life-without-parole sentence. “As I grew older in prison, it takes its wear and tear on you — watching people come and go, and you’re still there. It was a great challenge. Through prayers, I was able to sustain my sanity. I fell back onto my grandmother always telling me to be strong.”
Lamar said participating in programs in prison helped give her strength and support throughout her time. “As far as looking on the outside, you’d say, ‘Oh, she’s doing her time well.’ But on the inside, it was tearing me up.”
The pandemic posed an array of new risks to incarcerated elders.
At the Central California Women’s Facility, Lamar shared a room with eight others. While her roommates wore masks and washed hands, ventilation was poor.
Even when one person tested positive for COVID-19 and got transferred to a separate room to isolate, the isolations were inconsistent. Prison officials would transfer people from separate buildings to new rooms, infecting new groups of people, Lamar said. After the transfer of a COVID-positive person to a new room, a fellow older woman passed away from complications of the virus.
“It’s almost impossible to create a safe environment when you have people who are unable to social distance,” Block said. She added that a lack of hygiene supplies, as well as noncompliance by prison staff of social distancing rules, contributed to the virus’ spread. “People inside are always telling us that the guards wear their masks around their chins.”
During the pandemic, demand mounted to release incarcerated elders.
In California, the Elder Parole Program allows people over the age of 50 who have been incarcerated for over 20 years the possibility of a parole hearing, regardless of if they were originally sentenced to life without parole. According to the Department of Corrections, a federal court required the implementation of this process due to overcrowding in the state’s prisons.
In October 2020, Lamar received a commutation of her life-without-parole sentence from Gov. Gavin Newson, meaning her sentence could be reduced from its original length. She went before the parole board. Lamar “put in a package to the governor defining what happened, my life crime, and how I had changed my life during the whole time of my incarceration,” she said. The governor commuted her sentence two months later — meaning Lamar was then eligible to go to the parole board. The parole board granted her parole so that instead of dying in prison, she would be released.
While Newsom’s office used its executive power to release people during the pandemic, the majority were people who would have been released within two to three months, and many more must still be released to prevent sickness, death, and the brutalities of prison life, Block said. She said these early releases, while great, differed from the demands of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which has been focusing on the release of people in their old age. Often, these people have medical conditions making them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Many have been sentenced to life or life without parole.
In the spring of 2020, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners launched Care Not Cages, an online campaign highlighting the stories of several incarcerated women and transgender people dealing with medical conditions. Many are over the age of 50. One woman, Lucia Bravo, has been in prison for 25 years and is now 82 years old, the website reports. Bravo has leukemia, making her highly vulnerable to COVID. Bravo has family on the outside waiting to receive her.
Another woman, Elaine Wong, is 69 years old. She has been in prison for 40 years. She is in touch with her family of children and grandchildren, who have been advocating for her release since the early months of the pandemic, due to her vulnerability as an older person. A petition for her release has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures.
Lamar wants to continue to fight for incarcerated elders. “The majority of us have places we can go. We have family that would take us in. They would love to see us. Come home, spend whatever little time we have left with our kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. We wouldn’t be a threat to society.”
For those without a place to go, programs exist “to take care of you,” said Lamar. Such programs support elders in finding housing, income, and coping with the difficulties of reentry.
The Sentencing Project’s 2021 report also calls for examining the factors at play in a person’s life after release from prison. Is the person receiving social, physical, and emotional support as they acclimate to a new life, sometimes after decades in prison? Are they receiving help in finding employment and housing? These questions can offer a deeper picture than looking solely at reoffending rates as a measure of people’s “success” after release.
“We incarcerate people far too long, way into their elderly years, beyond reason,” said Sam Tubiolo, a visual arts instructor at California Medical Facility, a prison in Northern California’s Vacaville. Tubiolo has taught art in California prisons since the nineties, and currently facilitates classes in drawing and painting. Tubiolo also teaches a class in the prison’s hospice center, where students often have three to six months left to live. Some of the people in hospice spend time tending vegetables and succulents in an outdoor meditation garden; others draw, paint, make music and write. Tubiolo said California Medical Facility has been actively seeking for hospice patients to be released to hospice centers outside of the prison.
Years-long prison sentences punish people for a single moment in their lives, said Tubiolo. “Human beings should not be judged by the worst thing they’ve done. We all have made mistakes, and oftentimes the people who are incarcerated made their mistakes when they were 18 years old, when their brains are barely formulated to make good judgments, and wound up in prison — in many cases for life, in some cases to Death Row.”
For Tubiolo, the arts offer ways for people in prison to work on creative problem-solving and self-expression. “My experiences over these decades is that yes, people do rehabilitate, people do change,” he said. “That is the one thing we so often miss in the concept of prison. The concept is a very cut-and-dried one, where if a mistake is made, a person must pay. Where does that end?”
Since her release in December 2020, Chyrl Lamar has worked with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners to advocate for the release of others. She keeps in touch with friends who are waiting to be released.
One friend, who is currently incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility, organized a group of other women facing life sentences.“They sit down and talk about their true feelings, about being left behind” while others are allowed to leave the prison, Lamar said. Lamar lets them know she understands what the women are going through. “I never gave up hope,” she tells them.
She spoke of one friend, a woman who entered prison long before she did. She is older than Lamar, and is still inside. The Governor’s Office has the power to revise her initial sentence, as it did for Lamar.
“Give the elderly a chance,” she said. “At least let them die in dignity at home.”
- The U.S. currently incarcerates 2 million people in prisons and jails, more than any country in the world. In the last 40 years, changes in sentencing law and policy have created a 500% increase in the number of people in the prison system.
- In 2020, there were around 274,000 older adults incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. The number is projected to surpass 400,000 by 2030.
- While 65 conventionally defines the start of older age in the U.S. population outside of prison, old age in prison is typically marked at age 50 or 55 because inadequate healthcare accelerates chronic conditions associated with aging.
- Between 1993 and 2013 the number of people aged 55+ in the nation’s state prisons who were sentenced to more than one year increased by 400%, from 26,300 in 1993 to 131,500 in 2013.
- The number of people serving life sentences increased from 34,000 in 1984 to nearly 204,000 in 2020.
- 30 percent of people serving life sentences in 2020 were age 55 or older.