A Gray-Beard Behind Gray Bars

Written by Steve Marshall

      Before I came in, I lived in faded Levis, a myriad of rock ‘n’ roll t-shirts, (souvenirs of countless rock concerts in days past) and an ever-present baseball cap.

      I am young.

      I take my stairs two at a time and I am seldom under the weather. I have never had a serious illness and can count the days I have been hospitalized on the fingers of one hand.

      I am young.

      So it always takes me by surprise when someone addresses me as “Pops” or calls me “Old School.”

      “Hey, Old School.” That’s the name reserved in here for anyone over the age of fifty. Makes me want to respond, “Yeah, Pre-School?”

      I am young because I think young. I am not in denial of the fact that I am sixty-eight years old. I know my hair, what remains of it, is snow white and I have a beard to match. But thinking young is my best defense against the encroaching years.

      When I first came in, I saw an elderly figure sitting in front of his cell. He leaned on his cane, had no teeth in his head and very thick glasses. He walked as though he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. I pegged him for early to mid-eighties. I wondered what someone that old was doing in prison. Finally, I asked someone how old the gentleman was and was told that he was sixty-seven . . . one year older than I was at  the time. To say I was shocked would be an understatement.

      I was assigned a cell with a man who was two years my senior. This is a man who hated rock ‘n’ roll (“Those Beatles were nothin’ but loud noise!”) walked around humming “The Camp Town Races” and listened faithfully to “The Prairie Home Companion.” To me he seemed to be much more of my grandfather’s generation than my own.

      I am young.

      Oh, the hell with it. Facts are facts. Before I came in, I collected social security and was on Medicare. I had been eligible to join AARP for over fifteen years. So okay, for the purposes of this article, I will grudgingly admit that I’m getting up there. So what’s it like being a senior citizen (blech) in prison?

      To most of the inmate population, I am invisible. As I move about the compound, others tend to look through me. If they do see me at all, I am totally inconsequential to them.

      There are certain advantages to this.

      First and foremost, I am safer than most of the other men who populate this world. Seldom is someone of my age ever targeted for violence because there is no cache in beating up an old man. In fact, the inmate’s code holds that anyone who would beat up an old man would receive retribution of the severest order. Just last week, a man about my age was found standing “too close” to the television. The viewing area was empty except for him but he is a sex offender and therefore required to view television from the back row. Someone approached him and ordered him to move. He refused, saying he wasn’t hurting anyone or anything. With that, the offended party hauled off and slapped the older man hard enough to knock him down. Within fifteen minutes, two other inmates sought out the violence-prone individual and exacted their revenge, prison style. All of them are now locked down in the Special Housing disciplinary unit, including the old man who was slapped.

      But incidents such as this are rare. If an older man minds his own business and doesn’t smart off to anyone, he will normally go about his business unmolested.

      Still, many of the prejudices and judgments made against older people in the free world are here, often even amplified.

      When I first arrived at Oakdale, I was assigned to work on the serving line of the dining hall. It’s a fast-paced, pressure filled environment. One of the others working on the line has a pre-set bias against older men, automatically assuming them to be slow and suffering from some measure of diminished capacity.

      In the year and a half that I have worked on the line, he has never spoken a kind word to me.

      I work hard and my energy reserves are the equal of any man there. I have never once been responsible for the line having to slow down. While my position is somewhat menial, I take pride in doing a good job at it. But back in July, the corrections officer normally administers the dining hall was rotated to another department for the quarter. The prejudiced individual went to the new man running things to complain that I was slow, confused and couldn’t get along with anyone else on the serving line, none of which was remotely true. I was then demoted to “Spoon Roller,” a job usually reserved for older inmates, which consists of sitting at a table rolling up sporks with salt packets in a paper towel, to be passed out at mealtime. My pay was cut from $36.00 a month to $5.25. I did the work without complaining and two months later, when the original man in charge returned, I was immediately reinstated to my former job. The man who had me demoted swore he would quit if I returned to the serving line but that proved to be bluster.

      What has been hardest to accept for me as an older inmate in a federal prison is that these are supposed to be my “golden years.” While I am presently in good health, a seven and a half year stretch for someone of my age could easily become a life sentence. My greatest wish is that I do not die in a place like this. I remain focused on that goal.

      I have a granddaughter who was born five months after I went into house arrest. I have met her once, when my daughter and her husband visited and brought her to see me shortly after she turned one. When I get out, she will be nearly seven years old. I mourn the passing of each day that I cannot be a part of her life. But she is regularly shown pictures of me and I talk to her each week on the phone. She is two now and still can’t quite figure out where that voice is coming from or how a person could be small enough to fit into that tiny device. But I struggle to make an impression nonetheless; to let her know who her “Popi” is and just how very much I adore her. I hope it takes.

      Now if you will excuse me, I’ll revert to the state I was in.

      I am young.



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