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Behind Bars and Minds: The Dementia Crisis in Prisons

by Sydney Richner

Having led creative writing workshops in a local prison, I remember thinking to myself...Prisoners have such a unique perception of time. In their creative writing, each second felt intimate, detailed, and ever more valuable. I both admired and pondered about it; Wouldn’t the seconds locked up begin to fade into one another? After having looked into it further, I realize how little time incarcerated persons actually have: not only with their families, but within themselves

Those serving sentences from a young age often experience what’s called “arrested development.” This phenomenon refers to a halt or significant delay in a prisoner’s psychosocial development due to the aggravating factors of incarcerated spaces: such as isolation or increased exposure to traumatic experiences. While their emotional processes develop slower than the general populace, recent studies suggest that “the prison population is aging and developing neurodegenerative disorders at a faster pace than the general population.” Despite a documented stunt in prisoner’s affective functions, the stresses of incarceration accelerate their more corporeal, biological, and epigenetic aging: resulting in the heightened degradation of their cognitive functions. 

In other words, prisoners are predisposed to mental illness. In the case of Thomas Gilbert, an innocent man who was wrongfully convicted of murder at the ripe age of twenty, this ailment is a severe case of dementia. Gilbert, now seventy-one, struggles to remember the names or faces of his family members. He’s not the only one. In 2010, there were 40,000 recorded inmates with dementia. This number has only climbed over the years; forecasts indicate that, by 2050, a quarter of a million incarcerated persons will be afflicted. 

With these newfound neurological deficits, prisoners with dementia are likely to struggle to reintegrate into society upon release, especially without proper mental health care and support. Incarceration’s neurological impact, therefore, drives prisoner re-entry. In fact, the rehabilitation process already proves extremely difficult for the mentally able: due to employment, housing, and legal barriers. To this effect, within five years of their release, 35% of Florida’s prisoners return to prison. Moreover, of Florida’s prisoners, nearly 29% are elderly. In recent years, the elderly demographic amongst the incarcerated has grown exponentially, a product of the ‘tough on crime’ era. As a result, Florida’s prison population is at an even greater risk of rapid cognitive decline. 

Whether it be due to their environmentally hastened aging or natural senior status, the minds of incarcerated individuals suffer the negative consequences of prison environments. Mass incarceration leads to overcrowding which contributes to a scarcity of resources and an abundance of violence and victimization. Prisoners’ poor nutrition, for instance, has been directly linked to dementia. A report in the Lancet estimates that prisoners “consume twice the recommended dietary levels of salt, and their diets also [include] an excess of carbohydrates and fat.” In older people, high salt intake can cause/exacerbate mental deterioration. This, coupled with prisoners’ sedentary lifestyles, supplies a predisposition for vascular dementia. In addition, prisoners have limited access to higher education which, research projects, reduces a person’s risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Given that over 90% of our prison population is men, it is important to spotlight the dementia epidemic that threatens their mental cells, behind their metal ones, for Men’s Mental Health Awareness Month and to continue to advocate for improvements to our criminal justice system moving forwards. Some advocates call for criminal institutions to implement programs and provide medical and nutritional resources that cater to geriatric needs. Others focus on limiting mass incarceration and making rehabilitation more accessible, so as to reduce the risk of dementia altogether. With cases like Thomas Gilbert’s in mind, I believe that both solutions may well be necessary to properly realize systemic reformation. As long as any innocent man is left to deteriorate, both physically and psychologically, behind bars, locked away and forgotten, justice has not been served. All that’s been served is negligence and harm.

Click here to sign a petition supporting Thomas Gilbert’s release or to donate to support IPF's work to support innocent individuals like Thomas :


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