On Growing Old in Prison (Part II)

Wandering around a federal prison before my parole, I asked myself, is my future all around me?

They are wheeled to and fro by other inmates; they creak and waddle to and from the cafeteria at mealtimes; they wander in the noonday sun talking to themselves.

They occupy prison hospital lineups in increasing, and heavy, numbers. It’s a silent and terrifying way to go gently into that good night. But as often as not, these older folks are smiling.

As has been observed, old age brings quietude and good behavior, even as the mind drifts away like the tides.

By Colin McGregor

No senior I’ve ever talked to behind bars seemed to have wanted to end up in jail in Canada.

At the Federal Training Centre’s minimum security facility B-16 in Laval, brand spanking new seniors’ accommodations, with ample room and ventilation, are being built to replace two wings with 20 cells each, wings packed with people over 65, many with serious health care woes. There are 90-year-olds in jail. The hallways outside these windowless 10 by 7 foot cells are choked with wheelchairs and walkers.

Peer Helpers

Inmate “peer helpers,” trained in psychology and a smattering of medical knowledge, live among them – pushing wheelchairs, getting canteen orders, helping out on any medical conditions, in coordination with a thinly-stretched health care staff whose lives, as have all of ours, have been complicated by the challenges of Covid-19.

These inmates, some of whom themselves are serving life sentences, work around the clock for inmate wages (less than $6 a day) to ease the aged’s burden as best they can.

Before Covid struck, these elderly inmates would gather once every two weeks at the modest prison chapel to enjoy games, songs, stories and other activities. Card tables would be set out; volunteers, some of whom were as old as the inmates, would sit with the inmates and just talk, play table games, engage in quizzes and laugh. Together, they would chat, commiserate, reassure and even cheat at cribbage. (I used to cheat at cribbage when I would attend these; it is part of the rehabilitative process to admit your mistakes.)

Twice monthly, there would be an early evening Catholic mass in the same space. Walkers would line a rear wall as the men would strain their ears to hear the sermon. The chapel was a place of refuge for these men; for the chaplains, they were and are a priority.

Covid-19

The meetings I describe haven’t been held since all our lives stopped in the spring of 2020.

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