Incarcerated Grandparents: Unlocking the Secrets of Trauma, Abuse, and Resilience from our Elders in Prison

Dr Tina Maschi
Dr. Tina Maschi

As part of DugDug’s ongoing series on leading researchers in social service, we have had the unique privilege of interviewing Dr Tina Maschi, associate professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service. She has over 25 years of practice and research experience work with diverse age groups of survivors of trauma in correctional and community settings. She is the President of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work and the Executive Director of the Be the Evidence Project which brings light to pressing human rights and social justice issue of our times, such as Aging and Dementia in the Criminal Justice System and innovative solutions for intergenerational family justice, peace and freedom, including the use of the arts for individual and social transformation. Dr. Maschi is well-published, with over 100 publications and local, national and international presentations and workshops in the areas of life course mental health and cumulative trauma, and resilience, including among older adults in prison. Her recent paper, titled Forget me not: dementia in prison. was published in the journal The Gerontologist.

What led you to this particular study?

In 2010, I was awarded the Geriatric Social Work Faculty Scholars Award funded by the John A. Hartford Foundation and the Gerontological Society of America to conduct a research project entitled, Trauma, Coping Resources, and Well-Being among Older Adults in Prison. I wanted to conduct the study because my earlier scholarship documented the personal and social environmental risk and protective factors that influenced mental health and criminal justice involvement, mostly with young populations. I was quite struck when reading the literature about the lack of information about the older adults population in the justice system. Although I had a hunch that many of the similar issues, such as trauma and social disadvantage were to account for older adults in prison, I was quite surprised to find what I like to describe as one of the most devastating human-made disasters of the stockpiling of older and seriously ill people in prison who are at high risk of dementia and abuse and neglect.

Can you shares some of your findings with us?

Although my project team has conducted many studies on older adults and mental health in prison, I would like to share the most recent findings, about life course trauma and later life mental health among older adults in prison, and most importantly, the factors that foster resilience among older adults even under the stressful conditions of confinement.

When asked about their personal histories, older (age 50 and above) adult men and women on average reported three adverse life experiences that occurred in the community or in prison. These experiences ranged from past or current trauma, stress, loss, and separation which included interpersonal violence, family problems (parental or personal divorce, caregiver stress), homelessness, mental health and substance abuse, discrimination based on characteristics, such as race/ethnicity, age, gender, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, and class. The subjective distress associated with these events, including in childhood, often cause lingering subjective distress that influences their current state of health and well-being. Their life history trajectories also suggest that power, access to services and justices often proceed imprisonment and incarceration and the prison settings also is a traumatic experience.

Seven out of ten older adults reported some type of traumatic or stressful life experience and related past and current subjective distress. These experiences included childhood and/or adult exposure to violence, unexpected and expected loss of a love one, family separation, or being diagnosed with a serious physical or mental illness.

Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age

Life Course Interpersonal Violence - One out of two older adults reported being exposed to family violence before the age of 16. Three out of four participants reported still feeling moderately to extremely affected by these earlier traumas

  • “I was crippled when I was younger because my family member beat and molested me. I was tied to the basement poles beaten always told over and over again you’re a jail bird just like your father. This was so tightly put into my head it blurred everything I saw.”
Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age

Grief, Loss, and Separation - Participants’ responses for stressful life experiences commonly included the unexpected death of someone close (60%), the expected death of someone close (69%), and prior incarceration (68%).

Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age

Serious Illness - Twenty percent of participants reported having serious and chronic illnesses that included cancer, HIV/AIDS, and lung and heart disease.

Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age

Stressful Conditions of Confinement - Participants commonly reported about the trauma and stress of incarceration. These experiences included mistreatment and medical neglect by staff, isolation from family and many feared for their safety.

  • “I hope I don’t get hurt. I am afraid all the time.”
  • “I have HIV/AIDS and I have been coming to prison all my life. I am afraid of dying in here”
  • “It’s very tough surviving prison. The provoking, the unnecessary treatment, verbal abuse and violence only adds to the original sentence term to be served. Overcrowded conditions, poor medical service, lack of interaction with Administrative Staff is stammering.”

Many participants reported minimal contact with their families while in prison which was significant source of distress, especially when a family member in the community was sick or dying.

  • “I cannot contact family, I think about my children, grandkids, children in DYFS”
  • “I worry about my elder father”
  • “…my aging, ailing mother that I am not able to support”
Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age

Anticipatory Stress and Community Reintegration - The older adults who were close to the end of their prison terms reported feeling anticipatory stress about being released from prison.

  • “I worry about when I get outgetting kids a place to live”, “keeping a job to make ends meet”, “job opportunities upon my release, rebuilding relationships with my children” and “not being able to support them”
  • “You don’t need a survey to know you have a lot of men over 50 getting ready to go home, with no money. No place to stay. And no one trying to understand this part of the problem. I earn $15 a month. I go home in 9 months. I have no family to turn to. I don’t want to come back to prison, after doing 7 years. I am trying to stay positive. I pray. I go to see the psych. For one on one and I try to look on the bright side. But the reality is, when I hit the street I am on my own. Tell me what good your survey will do me or people like me?”
Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age
Photo Credit: Ron Levine/Prisoners of Age

Resilient Coping - Despite past and current life adversity, many older adults also reported coping resilience using physical, cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual, and participatory (empowerment) strategies for survival in prison,.

  • “I pray. I try to meditate and read a great deal to take my mind off worries”
  • “I do yoga, Dr. Tina Maschi, yoga”
  • “I became a jogger & sprinter at 56 years old. I run 5 miles per day and sprint 105 yd sprints every other day”
  • “Prayed to God, got in touch with family members and did a whole lot of jogging exercise”
  • “I am a hospice worker and facilitate a grief therapy group”

How can these findings be used?

These findings suggest that an accumulation of stress and trauma across the life course can have effects on later life health and mental health. This includes abuse that occurs in childhood in the family home or community or while in prison. Another form of trauma is being diagnosed with a serious illness, such as dementia and an incarcerated person’s disenfranchised grief that occurs when the expect or unexpected death or illness of a family member occurs when they are in prison. Most importantly we found that the combination of internal and external coping resources, such as physical, cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual, participatory (leadership and empowerment based activities) has a curative effect of increasing subjective feelings of health and well-being among older adults in prison.

As a collective, we can learn from the experiences of older adults in prison about how we can manage trauma and stress by engaging in positive thinking and emotions, spirituality, leadership and empowerment based activities, physical exericise, and social and civic engagement. As for older adults in prison, the public needs to be more aware what is happening to the parents and grandparents of many families in America. It is as if America has turned a blind eye to a population of marginalized older adults who are disenfranchised by race, age, gender, legal status, and age. We must consider more restorative approaches that emphasizes accountability that is just and proportionate and that provides healing and the potential pathways for forgiveness for individuals who are survivors of crimes and their families.

We also must consider as a society to evaluate the consideration of release of the over 200,000 adults aged 50 and older in prison that pose no public safety risk to society yet cost taxpayers a considerable larger amount not to mention the moral costs of being deaf to the pain cries and suffering of the seriously ill and sick in society. What I would like to see society do is to infuse once again compassion and mercy in the criminal justice system. For example, individuals with mild to severe dementia in prison to be considered for medical parole or compassionate release, especially when family members are able to care for them.

I encourage everyone to ‘Be the Evidence” they want to see in the world. We need everyone to have family and community conversations about our grandparents in prison and the life experiences that have often led them there. You can be the evidence with conversations among family and friends at the dinner table, on a facebook page, on a blog. I also encourage everyone to hold community forums as I do at Fordham University. Invite key stakeholders to discuss restorative approaches that incorporate community dialoguing, family conferencing, and victim and offender mediation.

What do you plan to do next?

I plan to publish these findings to the academic community and general public. People need to be aware what is happening in the criminal justice system, especially the current crisis of the proliferation of older adults. We not only need safer but also saner ways to deal with sentencing, imprisonment, and community reintegration if we ever want to achieve a common humanity where all individuals are treated with dignity and respect and we all are part of the human family, including older adults who have committed crimes at some point in their lives.

Any advice for people getting into your field?

Social work is a wonderful profession for individuals who want to make a difference. It is helpful to get a bachelor’s and then master’s degree in social work. Your challenge will be what facet of social work that you would like to be involved which ranges from community mental health, agency administration, policy advocacy, or research.

Please tell us a little more about your department

Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to more than 15,100 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. The Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service is ranked among the top twelve graduate schools of social work in the nation.

The school is also home to my Be the Evidence Project, which has the mission to create awareness of human rights and social justice issues, such as elder abuse, through research, advocacy, and education. It is a collective of globally conscious researchers, practitioners, educators, policy-makers, advocates, and concerned citizens.

Additional Resources

Select Publications from Dr. Maschi and colleagues on Trauma, Aging, and the Criminal Justice System

  • Maschi, T., Viola, D., & Morgen, K. (2013). Trauma and Coping among Older Adults in Prison: Linking Empirical Evidence to Practice. Gerontologist.
  • Maschi, T., Viola, D., Morgen, K., & Koskinen, L. (2013). Trauma, stress, grief, loss, and separation among older adults in prison: the protective role of coping resources on physical and mental wellbeing. Journal of Crime and Justice. doi:10.1080/0735648X.2013.808853 
  • Maschi, T., Morrissey, M.B., & Leigey, M. (2013). The case for human agency, well-being, and community reintegration for people aging in prison: A statewide case analysis. Journal of Correctional Healthcare. Published online May 26, 2013. DOI: 10:1177/1078345613486445
  • Maschi, T., Sutfin, S., & O’Connor, B. (2012). Aging, mental health, and the criminal justice system. Journal of Forensic Social Work, 2 (2/3), pp. 162-185. DOI:10.1080/1936928X.2012.750254.
  • Maschi, T., Viola, D., & Sun, F. (2012). The high cost of the international aging prisoner crisis: Well-being as the common denominator for action. Gerontologist. doi: 10.1093/geront/gns125, first published on October 4, 2012.
  • Maschi, T., & Baer, J.C. (2012). The heterogeneity of the world assumptions of older adults in prison: Do differing worldviews have a mental health effect? Traumatology. doi: 1534765612443294, first published on April 24, 2012
  • Maschi, T., & Baer, J.C., Morrissey, M.B., & Moreno, C. (2012). The aftermath of childhood trauma on late life mental and physical health: A review of the literature. Traumatology. doi: 1534765612437377, first published on April 16, 2012
  • Maschi, T., Kwak, J., Ko, E.J., & Morrissey, M. (2012). Forget me not: Dementia in prisons. The Gerontologist, 52(4):441-51:doi: 10.1093/geront/gnr131
  • Maschi, T., Dennis, K., Gibson, S., MacMillan, T., Sternberg, S., & Hom, M. (2011). Trauma and stress among older adults in the criminal justice system: A review of the literature with implications for social work. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 54, 347-360.
  • Maschi, T., Gibson, S., Zgoba, K., & Morgen, K. (2011). Trauma and life event stressors among young and older adult prisoners. Journal of Correctional Health Care, 17(2), 160-172.