The Brisbane Powerhouse will host Prisoners of Age from October 17, 2011 to November 22, 2011. [website]
buy the book, US & Can. [website]
buy the book, other [website]
More than two million North Americans are now behind bars, an estimated 35 percent of them edging far past middle age. "Prisoners of Age" offers a microcosmic glimpse of what lies ahead in this new millennium. Existing prison space is in serious decline, bunk space and medical costs are soaring. Geriatric inmates comprise the fastest growing age group in the United States. Statistically, the risk of recidivism decreases significantly with age. Within a year of release, inmates between the ages of 18 and 24 have a recidivism rate of 22 percent. For inmates over the age of 43, the rate drops to two percent. After the age of 55, recidivism drops to below one percent. In the United States, the average expense of medical care and maintenance for inmates over 55 is $79,000 per year, about four times the norm. Meanwhile, the people who manage North America's prison system are worrying more and more about how to handle the imminent explosion in the geriatric population.
"Prisoners of Age" is a series of photographs and interviews with elderly inmates and corrections personnel conducted in prisons both in the United States and Canada from 1996 to 2004.
The exhibition and 208-page companion book serve to capture the complexity of a subject that is seldom contemplated – aging offenders in the correctional system. The project explores the socio-economic causes of crime and delinquency, encouraging visitors to consider the human dimension of doing time while growing old in prison; the objective being to open the eyes of the public, to play a role in stimulating social and institutional change by addressing these issues of social justice and human dignity through images and interviews.
The project has been exhibited at Alcatraz Penitentiary [2001 & 2006], The National Archives of Canada, Ottawa,  the Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, . The Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin  and the Cirque du Soleil Headquarters in Montreal . in July 2010 it travels to the Fremantle Prison in Perth, Australia for a 4 month stay.
The portraits in the "Prisoners of Age" exhibition are immense [4’x8’], graphic and command the viewer’s attention. The full exhibition comprises 60 4x8 ft prints, vertically supended from the museum ceilings. All prints include text from interviews with inmates and corrections personnel. It’s hard to imagine these old men as criminals running from the law. You see the frailty, the forgetfullness, the universal problems of old age apparent in generations of your own family. Many of their stories are those that ring true today about fits of anger, rage, foolish steps they took in their youth that have brought them to where they are now. Others are remorseless. "Prisoners of Age" seeks a balance of the two dispositions, through images and text, lending insight into the lawbreaker's proclivity to commit crime.
"Prisoners of Age" presents the stories of some of the most marginalized members of our society in their own words, revealing much of themselves. What we as a society decide to do about them reveals just as much of ourselves. It is our ambition that we can persuade a younger audience to avoid making the same mistakes that doomed so many of these inmates.
"I was young and crazy, " recalls Roland Campbell, who is now aged 82. "I shot a women; killed her. That put me in here. I had the devil in me... I wouldn’t do nothing like that now."
The words of the elderly North Carolina prisoner are spoken with regret, but also with a rueful resilience. They sound off-key; old men and jail cells just don’t mix. But in the United States today, they have to: elderly prisoners are a booming part of the prison population. Throughout the U.S., from massive, hard-time Southern prisons to campus-like low-security facilities in the North complete with geriatric wards, ‘old cons’ are proliferating.
Old men behind bars don’t generate any of prison’s violent glamor - like convict icons played by Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson or Marlon Brando - who do every kind of somersault to get out of Sing Sing or Alcatraz or Southern chain gangs and to get back to real life. Nor are they usually the angry men who clang cups on their bars, raising hell and seething with resentment and violence.
Older prisoners are, on average, more like Roland Campbell- reflective, quiet, with all the big events in their lives safely in the past. The McCain Correctional Hospital, a geriatric prison in rural North Carolina, is full of Roland Campbells. And soon, much of the U.S. prison system will be, too. Seniors are quietly invading American prisons in wheelchairs and on crutches, wearing white smocks and tied to their IV drips.
The new geriatric prisons they live in are different, too. They should be - these prisoners do not fit the crime-novel cliché of raw-edged young toughs pacing their cells like caged tigers, counting out the days and the years until their release, impatiently killing time till they can get out on the street again.
Old cons are more like toothless tigers: declawed, dazed, sometimes pathetic. But they can show sparks of the old spirit, like the somehow irrepressible prisoners who escaped from one Alabama jail, and got as far as their legs would carry them. Then they gave in to physical exhaustion- two blocks from their cells. "They called me from the local hospital, and said, ‘We got some of your boys’," recalled the warden. "They done run out of breath."
Men in their 60s, 70s and 80s who are imprisoned - often hospitalized, really - evoke sympathy, even pity, in a way younger prisoners just can’t. They also bring a whole new range of complaints and grievances to bear, like the McCain convict whose appeal is based on his inability to wear his hearing aid in court: "I couldn’t make out a word," he protests, recalling his bizarrely soundless trial.
Harsher penalties aside, a jarring fact is that many ‘old cons’ are in jail today for crimes they committed when they were already in their late 50s, 60s, and even 70s: sexual abuse, assault, fraud, vehicular homicide, major property crimes, first-degree murder. While some senior inmates are veteran convicts with a string of sentences stretching back to their teens and 20s, others are old men who were first convicted of serious crimes when they were already past retirement age. Jonathan Turley, a Washington D.C. law professor who deals with older prisoners, calls these offenders the ‘late bloomers and overachievers’ of the criminal class.
In Canada, where several seniors-oriented facilities have sprung up, one federal study confirms that, far from being simply the victims of longer sentences, ‘50 percent of older prisoners are first-time offenders’. These convictions are, moreover, overwhelmingly for violent and sex-related offences. While quiet, elder prisoners usually have a calming effect on the general prisoner population, they are also subject to temper and emotional outbursts that can lead to crimes of passion: ‘loss of inhibitions [result] in aggression, quarrelsomeness, rigidity and illegal sexual behavior, such as exhibitionism,’ concluded the Canadian report. The authors speculate, quoting recent medical research, that changes in brain chemistry may result in a loss of inhibitions in some people as they age. This can lead to unexpected rages that prompt a law-abiding adult to suddenly commit a first crime even as they approach or pass retirement age.
This wave of older prisoners has begun to overwhelm traditional facilities like the Angola state maximum security facility in Louisiana where in 1995, for the first time, more inmates died than were paroled. To cope with the change, a new generation of specialized prisons has grown up, as far afield as Oregon, Pennsylvania, Alabama, North Carolina and Canada. One of the most prominent is in Hamilton, Alabama…
The television documentary [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/ BRAVO TV 2004 - 48 minutes] explores, illuminates and extends photographer Ron Levine’s groundbreaking project with geriatric prisoners. Journeying with Levine on a series of photo shoots in Canadian and American prisons, we discover why he has embarked on this artistic pursuit, what he seeks to reveal, who his subjects are and why we should care. With Levine as our gateway, the film provides an immersion into the world of the aging prisoners, revealing a number of important social issues surrounding the aging prison population, and bringing forth the personal dimension of this human tragedy.
“Prisoners of Age” asks a fundamental question that has no easy answer: what becomes of an inmate who is too old or too ill to stay in the general prison population? Levine’s consummate skill as A photographer evokes deep sympathy for the inmates’ plight, but his images lead us to a second, more disturbing question: what about the justice demanded by the inmates’ victims, their families and society at large? The heart of the film lies in this conflict between feelings of sympathy and the desire for punishment, while revealing the artistic role of the photographer in staging this theatre of unresolved emotions.
This outstanding piece of documentary filmmaking superbly captures what inmates face inside prisons today. The superior cinematography and music are both integral to the film.... It is strongly recommended for libraries with a focus in the humanities and with an interest in the criminal justice system, prisons, prisoners and social change. Highly recommended.”—Educational Media Reviews Online
Silver Chris Award, 2005
(1st place in Arts category) Gemini Award, 2006
(Best Performing Arts category) Leo Award, 2005
(Best Documentary in the following categories: Cinematography; Direction; Performing Arts; Musical Score; Sound Editing)