In July, President Obama announced plans to commute the sentences of 46 nonviolent inmates, bringing the number of early releases he's granted to 89. Yet advocates for prison reform will not be seeing the end of the prison industrial complex anytime soon. U.S. penitentiaries continue to be overcrowded with more than a whopping 7 million inmates housed in the country's 4,575 prisons (a highly disproportionate number of black men and other people of color among them).
Within this prison population is a growing number of elderly men and women; outdated and not always appropriate three-strikes laws land many felons behind bars for the duration of their lives, costing tax payers roughly $60,000 each year for each inmate needing necessary medical and end-of-life care while incarcerated.
A chilling, complicated and ultimately heavy exhibit of photographs of some of these elderly prisoners, taken by Ron Levine and his Prisoners of Age project, is on display at Alcatraz through Dec. 2015.
Levine began photographing inmates in the U.S. and Canada in the mid-1990s and subsequently released a photography book that takes an up close and personal look at men and women serving time for everything from robbery, drug possession and running gambling houses, to murder, sex crimes and manslaughter.
Of the stories that accompany the photographs are those of survivors of domestic violence, addicts and those who willingly and intentionally committed murder or hate crimes with little to no regret.
The lives of these prisoners isn't as simple as black or white. Every one of them has a story to tell.
Certainly, there is no easy solution for the dilemma of caring for the incarcerated elderly population. The federal government would like to build more prisons. Advocates would like to see more cases of compassionate release. Other programs could help the elderly prison population -- many of whom no longer pose a threat to society because of their frail, aging or disabled bodies -- be transferred into nursing homes or other low security environments.
Regardless of where you land on the issue, the fact remains that each convict is an individual with life experiences that informed the decisions that ultimately confined them to life behind bars -- an aspect of Levine's project that causes one to really think about our criminal justice system and who among us "deserves" to die in a cell. The exhibit doesn't call for early release or the abolition of prisons. Instead, the photographs capture the vast span of the human condition and begin a much-needed conversation about how society addresses (or doesn't address) crime prevention, how we view mercy and forgiveness and how we treat our fellow humans.