There is an elderly chap, we'll call him Joe, who spends most of his days in a small room. Like many others of his generation, Joe has outlived his parents, siblings and even some younger members of his extended family. Friends drifted away many years ago.
Joe tries to make ends meet by being creative. He has a little enterprise where he makes twine from scraps that other people discard, and the twine is useful to occasional interested parties. But making the twine is getting harder as Joe's fingers are developing arthritis, and his eye sight isn't what it used to be. Joe doesn't complain; no one would listen if he did and he prefers to keep himself to himself these days.
Getting up at 3am every day for breakfast is getting harder, especially in the winter. The thermal underwear he was given a few years ago by someone passing through is full of holes but it is still one of his prized possessions. But Joe dare not stay in bed and miss a meal - he doesn't have the means of making a snack to keep him going until the next meal time rolls around, whenever that might be. After breakfast, Joe sits by the window looking out at the sleet falling from a grey sky not too dissimilar from the walls surrounding him. He wonders how many more winters he will see, and whether any will be from the other side of the glass and grey walls. What will happen if his sight goes completely? Will they move him away from his familiar surroundings that he can navigate now if he needed to, to somewhere "more suitable" but completely unfamiliar?
You out there reading this, are you thinking "there are charities who can help Joe"? Unfortunately, Joe is just one of thousands of inmates in America's prisons serving a long sentence with little to no chance of parole. Joe's crime was committed decades ago, when he by his own admissions was "young and stupid". No one got killed, but criminals had to be made examples of. Even if Joe was able to apply for parole, he would not meet the requirements of having a stable address and prospects of employment to parole out to. He is in a catch 22 situation that is only partly of his own making.
This is not a European stereotypical call for all inmates to be released. Some of us over here are more sensible than that, and clearly there are some inmates who continue to pose a threat to themselves or others regardless of their mental or physical age. But they are not the majority.
TDCJ is one of the few corrections agencies that have an official age designation for "geriatric inmates". You may find it hard to believe that it is the age of 55. Prison can preserve a body or accelerate its demise. TDCJ recommend around 450 inmates for early medical parole every year, and yet fewer than 1/8 of those inmates are approved by the Board or Pardons and Paroles (BPP). The BPP believe that it is better to keep these individuals inside a prison and have the tax payer fund their increasing medical bills, rather than release them into a community where the remaining friends, family and social support networks are often willing and able to help.
My husband knows a number of Joes in his prison. We help where we can, but the system discourages inmates from sharing, selling or giving away physical items. My husband officially became a geriatric inmate himself recently and we have another 10 years to hang on before we get to ride the parole roller coaster. In a country that prides itself on opportunity, there is a large pool of unproductive but willing labour at the country's disposal. Imagine, instead of 2 million inmates sucking the life out of the country's finances, what if there were even 1 million less of them and 1 million more contributing to the economy even in a small way and paying some of their own medical bills. Maybe not the land of the free, but more the land of the hard working repentants?