Shining Light on Humanity

A Prison for Every Ailment?

“Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone.” (Psalm 71:9)

Why do we collectively still think prisons are a solution to social, psychological and emotional problems? A recent New York Times Magazine opinion piece about dementia in prison showed me two things: 1. There seems to be increasing public appetite for more nuanced conversations about who prisoners really are; and 2. “dementia-friendly prisons” might be the next area of expansion for the prison industrial complex. Whoever is working on such prisons needs to stop it. Rather than finding or creating more gentle ways to dispose of people in our society, we need to redirect that effort, energy and taxpayer money into social, psychological and emotional remedies that actually work.

To be fair, Kate Engelhart wrote a great account delivered with nuance and care. “I’ve Reported on Dementia for Years, and One Image of a Prisoner Keeps Haunting Me” shows the humanity and compassion that exists within prisoners, staff and administrators of carceral facilities. She gives readers a glimpse into Federal Medical Center Devens, a federal prison in Massachusetts that contains “the federal prison system’s first purpose-built facility”: The Memory Disorder Unit (M.D.U.).

I didn’t catch the red flag the first time I read that: M.D.U. is the first such facility. More might be coming.

Over the 15-year course of my incarceration, I have only known (or been able to recognize) a handful of men who struggled with dementia. But I have known many dozens, if not hundreds, of incarcerated people with serious mental illnesses. 

In her story, Engelhart points out: “Older adults represent one of the fastest growing demographic groups within American correctional facilities.” With each passing year, I watch this play out: smooth faces developing wrinkles, dark hair turning gray, square shoulders beginning to round and hunch forward, toned bellies turning to paunch, sharp minds losing their edge.

“Truth in sentencing” and other draconian “tough on crime” reforms passed in the 1980s and ’90s “ensured that many more people would grow old and frail and then die behind prison walls,” Engelhardt, a contributing writer to the Times Magazine, observed.

Prior to my recent removal from the team (for an unrelated sanction), I had been a hospice volunteer for eight years. I was blessed to engage in “exquisitely intimate” work similar to what Engelhart describes being performed by “inmate companions” in the M.D.U. Yet, I don’t think we ever had a member of the team who had not “been convicted of a sex crime or other violent crime,” which are restrictions limiting who can serve in the M.D.U. I also never once felt like I had to protect our patients from any of my teammates — a fear expressed to Engelhart by an M.D.U. administrator. On the contrary, these men provided, and continue to provide, some of the best compassionate care anyone could hope to receive in any medical setting. 

Numerous nurses, doctors and hospice care providers, as well as our team’s founder and teacher extraordinaire, Ms. Kandyce Powell (Executive Director of the Maine Hospice Council), have attested to the quality of our care. One patient’s sisters, both hospice nurses themselves, cited this as the reason they weren’t fighting to bring their brother home to die. Instead, they drove the distance to visit their sibling nearly every day for weeks until he died, cared for by the unwaveringly loving service of “violent criminals” — men I know to be servant leaders and friends. 

Contrary to the stated belief of M.D.U. staff and what Engelhart refers to as “some researchers,” the future of the prison system must not be more M.D.U.s. If “Corrections” is supposed to “correct errant thoughts and behaviors,” and “with dementia, there is no rehabilitation” (according to one of the people who trained M.D.U. staff, quoted by Engelhart), then why build more M.D.U.s?

Instead of finding less inhumane ways to bury people alive, we should be working to expand avenues of compassionate release and medical and elder parole. Engelhart cites an American Bar Association report that shows compassionate release is rarely used, and she exposes some of the systemic barriers to releasing people on medical parole. 

Yet, if lawmakers would redirect funding from the ever-increasing budgets of policing and prisons and toward medical and mental health care facilities, and add fiscal incentives for nursing homes that accept elderly and infirm incarcerated people who pose no threat to their facility, our society might finally be able to take a step toward actually practicing the ideals it espouses: grace, mercy and redemption.

If you are reading this, you have the power to reach out to your local state representative and senator and tell them you want to live in a state that recognizes and honors humanity over unnecessary ongoing punishment. Thank you, Kate Engelhart and New York Times Magazine, for shining a light on the issues of aging and dementia in the carceral system. 

Leo Hylton is a PhD student at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, currently incarcerated at Maine State Prison. His education and work are focused on Social Justice Advocacy and Activism, with a vision toward an abolitionist future. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Rd., Warren, ME 04864, or

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