Aging Behind Bars

America's prison population has aged significantly, increasing the costs of incarceration. These four inmates show just some of the challenges older inmates bring.
by | April 2015
(Photos and captions by Andrew Burton)

Like the rest of America, the national prison population is growing older. Approximately 16 percent of prisoners today are over age 50; the number of inmates 55 and over increased nearly 1,400 percent from 1981 to 2012, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Thanks mostly to increased health-care expenses, states spend nearly twice as much on incarcerating older inmates as they do on average prisoners.

In December 2013, photographer Andrew Burton documented the lives of aging prisoners at several correctional facilities, including two prisons in California and one in Rhode Island. His photos and captions indicate some of the challenges states face in housing this special population of prisoners.

Frank Fuller, 66, stands alone in the prison yard during free time after breakfast at the California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo. In prison since 1990, Fuller received a sentence of 35 years to life for the murder of his third wife, who he says he shot with a rifle in a drunken rage after learning she had been having an affair with another man. A Vietnam War veteran who took shrapnel in his legs from a mortar round, Fuller served a previous prison sentence for murdering a man with a .45 caliber gun in a fight. Between Vietnam and prison, he worked in oil fields and in manufacturing.

David Smith is a prisoner at the John J. Moran Medium Security Prison in Cranston, R.I. Smith (his name has been changed at the request of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections), who is 70, is currently six years into a 40-year sentence for attempted murder. This is his fifth time in state prison; he has also served two sentences in federal prison. He suffers from a long list of medical problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, diabetes and ulcers. His list of medications includes an oxygen tank, 13 pills taken on various daily and weekly schedules, two inhalers, and daily insulin injections.

George Whitfield, 56, works with a physical therapist at California State Prison, Solano, in the city of Vacaville. This is Whitfield’s fourth time in prison; his current sentence is six years. He was sentenced for possession of narcotics with intent to sell and an illegal firearm. His previous three sentences, dating back to 1989, were allegedly for possession of marijuana, which Whitfield says he has only used recreationally. According to Whitfield, he suffered a stroke in 2007, which now forces him to use a walker. He also suffers from high blood pressure and has recently experienced numbness in his left arm.

Ronald Collins, 60, a hospice care patient, gets a haircut in the hospice care wing of the California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville. While California has a compassionate release program for terminal patients in the last six months of life, the decision is ultimately made by judges, who frequently deny the request. CMF’s hospice program was the first of its kind, originally created in the 1980s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The program currently holds 17 beds. When a patient arrives in CMF’s hospice, doctors immediately apply for compassionate release.