THE ELDERLY PRISONER
I was newly promoted as chief of the Prison Reception and Diagnostic Center in 1982 when I had this bewildering experience about an elderly inmate. What I felt that time was a blot to myself image. For quite some time after a harrowing period I considered I was a villain even if what I aspired for was to protect humanity from the harshness of human rights neglect. It happened in this manner.
The arrival of a challenging case
A jeep load of people alighted in front of the prison gates; around 18 of them mostly middle aged persons accosting what from a distance was a slowly moving individual. There were several escorting law enforcement personnel in front and two of them almost hugging someone to be admitted in the penitentiary—a familiar routine whenever prisoners are to be turned over. What made the entire scenario quite eerie was the person to be admitted. His gait was sluggish although he walks with confidence. He was projecting an apprehensive grin but almost self-possessed and poised. Quite different from those who are about to be shoved inside the prison camp to serve time.
Another distinction the newly arrived inmate had was his long hair, coifed into a bun with its silvery hues projecting purity. I would speculate that if he allowed his hair to flow, it could reach his hips. He was medium built, with muscled forearms indicating a profession where brawn is employed. He was joined and accompanied by his children, all in their early 70s and 80s, and a number of middle aged gentlemen. The jail escorts were virtually juvenile compared with their companions.
The group went directly to report to my office. The eldest of the group, one who looked like he was in his 90s, almost crept towards my desk and pleaded, “Sir, I am the eldest child of the person who will serve time (pointing at the old man standing in the corner straddled on both flanks by uniformed guards.) And as his children, we wanted to be assured that he will be provided with institutional treatment fit his age. He is already 116 years old.”
A technical problem
I was tongue tied for a while searching for jurisprudence whether my facility can still accommodate centenarians. I was wondering what happened to our judicial system. Is this for real? I managed to project an air of authority, prim and a bit formal so that the old folks would find consistency in their impression about the field of corrections. I wanted to check the judicial documents myself.
My officer in charge of admission handed over to me the court documents turning over the old man to serve time for five years. He was charged for hacking to death a neighbor due to a land dispute. He was that strong even at an advanced age.
After leafing through the sheaf of papers, I motioned to my officers; those tasked in the reception of newly received prisoners to take charge of the prisoner, with emphasis on how treat and accord the necessary assistance to the old man. “Let a specific corner in the dormitory be cleared to have a good space for our old man,” I said. “But first, let us give him a good haircut. He must have been neglected where he came from.” I ordered.
The elderly companions roared in disbelief and I was startled. “What, why are you so agitated?” I moaned.
“Sir, sir please, please! Our father never wanted his hair touched. It is his strength, his fountain of youth, the only source of his energy!” came an admonition from them.
I said, “My dear friends, all prisoners passing through the reception area will have to undergo a quarantine procedure and the first phase pertains grooming. Haircut is the initial way towards entering a highly regimented community. No one is exempted, well, of course, unless the person is already bald.”
I could feel a certain degree of heaviness in their facial expressions. The old man on the other hand was very silent and his stoicism was very remarkable. There was no sign of protestation, no movement, no other expression noted from his side. His poise was a picture of courage. The old man was in my perception must have been resigned at his situation. He was exuding an extra ordinary bearing much like any sage who had already defined everything according to the standards of wisdom.
The group expressed gratitude for hearing their plea, notwithstanding the fact that I disallowed exemption on the manner of keeping the long hair of their patriarch. The hair, the flowing silvery hair must have to go. Prison life is a series of rules all intended to promote absolute control.
A week later, I went to check the dormitory for the newly received prisoners with emphasis on verifying up close the situation of the ageing inmate. I thought of seeking from him his secret, his diet, his exercise and possibly his mind set, matters which made him live through and attain such an advanced age.
The security keeper posted at the gate greeted me with a snappy salute and I motioned to him that I intend to inspect the cell block of our eldest ward. The guard said, “Sir, I never saw the old man move around as vigorously as before after we have sent him to the barber for the regulation haircut. He must be sad for parting ways with his crown of glory.”
“Let me check him now. Be sure no one gets near him. If at all, there will be some wise guys trying to pull his leg, make an instant report. Get someone from our infirmary to assist the old man always. For breaching the century figure, he is an institutional treasure already.” I instructed.
There he was, my old ward sitting idly in the corner of a wider room I assigned him. There were also medical personnel when I came in ready to administer the regular physical examination. The old man struggled to stand up as soon as he saw me. His eyesight was still sharp. Except for the struggling way to stand erect, a far cry from that person I saw who was accosted a week before, everything seemed normal. I smiled at him and noticed the crew cut, allowing his full face to provide radiance.
A wish unfulfilled
I could only tell myself my wish to keep his silver locks for keeps and luck sake but rules are rules.
A month later, I was informed by the head of my security unit that they evacuated the old man and brought him to the hospital. We contacted his family and informed them of the status of their patriarch.
I immediately proceeded to the hospital and met the elderly children. We were all saddened by the information that the old man passed away. The eldest came up and approached me if only to whisper “Sir, the day you ordered a haircut to my father, he knew and we felt that he was handed down the death penalty.”
For me, it was not the length of his hair, but the loss of freedom that snuffed his life away.