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Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Invisibility of an Ageing Incarcerated Population during COVID-19

Photo Credit: Emiliano Bar on Unsplash
August 6, 2020

2020 has been touted as a year to build a new normal. A new normal to build a society without suppressing older people and their rights. A new normal to build a society without militarized policing and the prison-industrial complex. A new normal to build a society wherein solidarity is not a fleeting or aberrational ethos but a sustained effort towards a just future.

Discussions around State terror and pandemic response are not new. Over a youthful course, Generation Z and Millennials have witnessed the emergence and waning of widespread viruses, from the bird flu to SARS to swine flu. New communication technologies have exposed carceral terror against Black lives, from Rodney King to Sandra Bland to George Floyd. Yet, the simultaneous and intersecting timing of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter has shed new light on an invisible and subjugated group: ageing prison populations of colour. 

Prisons are known as sites of multiple forms of oppression. They disproportionately incarcerate those who are Black or Indigenous, low-income, have pre-existing health conditions, manage comorbidities, and live with disabilities. They are frequently reported for unsanitary conditions, the cultivation of social isolation, gendered and physical abuse, and punitive punishment under the guise of rehabilitation. They are depicted in popular culture as hypermasculine spaces of young Black and Brown teenagers and men.

What is lesser known about prisons is that older people are amongst the fastest growing prison population in the Global North. Prison populations are not only increasing, but also ageing. 

While COVID-19 has been depicted as a universal equalizer affecting global populations, its disproportionate toll on older people defies this misconception. The physical and emotional burdens are amplified and even more pronounced amongst older people of colour in prison, who are criminalized for their race and have minimal safety nets. The mandate to socially distance has become the rallying cry of governments around the world, yet overcrowding, poor health care facilities, and unhygienic conditions inside prisons make this order nearly impossible for incarcerated people to fulfill. 

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has been catastrophic in prisons. The infection rate for incarcerated people in Canadian federal prisons is 13 times the national average. Attempts to curb transmission in New Zealand have led to incarcerated people spending up to 23 hours a day in isolated and poorly ventilated cells. Incarcerated people in the U.S. are 300 percent more likely to die from COVID-19. The spread of COVID-19 places a particular physical and emotional toll on older incarcerated people, who have suffered the compounding effects of years of isolated confinement and poor health. With many having been subjected to multi-layered class, racial, ableist, and gendered oppressions that pushed them into incarceration, their vulnerability is at its pinnacle during COVID-19, where basic living amenities, hospital care, and contact with family members and loved ones are heavily regulated and restricted.

The rise of neoliberal policies since the 1980s has led to a hyper-incarceration of people of colour serving longer sentences within carceral institutions, yet older incarcerated people remain deeply invisible from mainstream consciousness. The COVID-19 response across the Global North has largely neglected their needs, such as access to restroom facilities, water, physical and mental health care, and community contact, by forcing them into solitary isolation to contain transmission. Instead, mass media tropes ostracize incarcerated and older people, neglecting their social, cultural, economic, and health rights and needs.

While governments have granted early release to thousands of incarcerated people given rampant virus transmission, most advocacy efforts have been led by non-State actors. Grassroots organizers have launched #FreeOurElders campaigns on Twitter, calling for the compassionate release of older people, citing their low recidivism rates and dire need of medical care. Incarcerated people have launched hunger strikes to protest inhumane conditions and lack of institutional response to the pandemic. Prison justice activists are raising concerns about older incarcerated communities of colour by organizing discussion forums on alternatives to State care. Drawing attention to older peoples’ experiences in prisons has been critical for a redirection of public consciousness to extend understanding of the abuse and neglect faced by older people, especially those from Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) backgrounds, beyond care homes and into carceral spaces.

Despite this, there is still much to be done. 

With the digitization of society becoming increasingly salient, it is important to consider voices who have been suppressed and absent in online spaces, and draw attention to a digitally disconnected older incarcerated demographic. As movements around older peoples’ and incarcerated rights gain more political clout, we have to raise their narratives to the fore to envision an alternative imaginary of a transformative anti-ageist and anti-carceral society.

We must not delude ourselves with post-racial narratives and confront the intimate relationship between race and incarceration. We must not wait for a pandemic to realize the necessity for robust healthcare and social safeguards for older people. Once we start to interrogate the oppression waged against both older and incarcerated communities, only then can we begin to alleviate the suffering and precarity of older folks in prison.