On November 4, 2011, I took a group of students to meet with the Long Termers Organization (LTO) at the California Institution for Women in Corona, California. The long termers organization is exactly what it sounds like: a group comprised of women who are incarcerated for a long time. It was created and is run by women imprisoned at CIW. I had met many of these women before, but we also met new women this time around.
While my students and I introduced ourselves and explained a bit about what we’ve been learning during the course of our semester together, we were careful to not talk too much so that the women in the group could speak. What was particularly interesting was that so many women were willing to share their stories with us. They told us stories of loss, hope, survival and resistance. For my students—many who had never been to a prison—the trip both challenged and changed their conceptualizations of those behind bars. Instead of seeing women in prison as faceless, dangerous monsters, they saw them as multifaceted people with complicated lives and struggles just like the rest of us. The “us” and “them” divide was challenged, and students spoke about how the women had similar, human concerns that we all have. Many of the women we met with have been imprisoned for over 20 years, and some for over 30 years.
The LTO is a terrific organization with some great advocates in it for women who have been imprisoned for a very long time. California has a large number of longtermers, many who are aged 60 to 80 years. We spend on average $70,000 to $80,000 a year to incarcerate elderly people—because of the health care costs that go along with imprisoning someone who is elderly—and in some cases spend far more, for instance when people need dialysis. What safety risk do these people pose to society? Who benefits from their imprisonment?
The women of the LTO ask that we on the outside raise awareness about the aging population of prisoners in the United States. It is through education and advocacy that we can perhaps reverse this trend so that resources are not being used to imprison aged and elderly populations of people.