While many who apply for the William Penn Fellowship target agencies like the Department of Education and Department of Agriculture, Ebony Johnson went a different route.
The Philadelphia native saw the Department of Corrections was looking for help with aging inmates, and she knew that was the agency for her. With a BA in psychology and MS in gerontology, Johnson was eager to work for the DOC.
"When I saw this opportunity, I hopped on and hoped for the best," Johnson said.
Johnson was selected and began on July 8, 2019, as the William Penn Fellow in the DOC Policy and Legislative Office. Her focus is on the medical parole bill and programs for elderly reentrants and inmates.
And it's a perfect fit for her.
"That's a passion of mine, the elderly," Johnson said. "We're living so much longer now. According to statistics, year 2020, older adults are going to outnumber those who are 18 and younger for the first time ever. With this increasingly aging population, they're going to need gerontologists to help be an advocate."
Gerontology is the biopsychosocial study of the aging process, which also includes issues faced by senior citizens. Whereas geriatrics focuses on the branch of medicine and the health care of the elderly, gerontology is concerned with all aspects of aging. Johnson's main focus is to assess the six dimensions of wellness of elderly inmates/reentrants which include: physical, spiritual, social, intellectual, occupational and emotional wellness to hopes of implementing age-appropriate interventions.
With no correctional experience or idea of what to expect from working with inmates, Johnson came in unbiased and optimistic as she visited various prisons to interview elderly inmates and learn about their wellness needs. And so far, it's been a positive experience.
Part of her focus has been on lifers and long-term offenders, since she found most programs are prioritized for short term offenders, or those who are ready to be paroled. She also has a focus on the elderly reentrants returning to society to help decrease institutionalized behaviors and increase more independency. Among her ideas for elderly inmates include senior yard time, senior peer support, senior support groups, and personalized vitamins for elderly in commissary such as Centrum Silver 50+, senior yoga, and a senior reentry workshop.
"The aging population is often looked over," Johnson said. "Even in reentry, some of the [community correction centers] don't have much to offer in regards to resources and programs specifically for the elderly."
The other issue she's found has been the lack of focus on all-around wellness for elderly inmates.
"Most programs only focus on one dimension of wellness, but neglect the others," Johnson said. "If I could have programs that encompass all the dimesons of wellness, it would represent whole-person wellness. That is a philosophy that calls for a personalized nurturing of the mind, body and soul, instead of just one area."
Beyond the DOC, Johnson's long-term goal is to establish an inter-generational center where children, youth, and older adults can come together and support each other in all six areas of wellness. For example, older adults could teach children about life lessons they've learned (social wellness) while the children could help the elderly learn new technology (intellectual wellness).