Victoria Helmly is a Ph.D. student at Georgia State studying criminology with an emphasis on gerontology, or the study of aging. She is a Second Century Initiative Graduate Fellow whose research is centered on aging within the prison system in the United States.
The growing population of inmates over 55 years old has risen by as much as 300 percent since 1999—a demographic representing around 12 percent of the 1.5 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S. prison system. According to a 2012 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, the population of older inmates is expected to reach 400,000—a 4,400 percent increase since 1981.
This poses numerous challenges for policy makers, educators, criminologists, and others who work with or are concerned with the issues facing older inmates including after their incarceration has ended.
For example, it can be harder for older adults to find employment regardless of criminal records, and very difficult for those of any age whose incarceration has ended to find a job. Helmy is interested in the policies and care the incarcerated face during their time in prison and how the facilities meet their needs.
Currently working under Dr. William Sabol, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Helmly is working on a project in conjunction with the DeKalb County Jail to evaluate a welding program for a group of inmates, taught by Georgia Piedmont Technical College, a unit of the Technical College System of Georgia.
Helmly is looking to interview participants about this experience, and she aims to follow them through the spring to study outcomes of the program.
Ultimately, she hopes the program will reduce the chances of reconviction and reincarceration.
Helmly’s passion for gerontology stems from her undergraduate studies. She decided to take an elective on the area of study and has been studying it throughout her academic career ever since.
“I switched my majors a few times, and finally landed on sociology. I took an elective gerontology course and fell in love with the study of aging and looking at aging from a sociological perspective.”
After getting her Master of Social Work at Georgia State, Helmly worked at the Division of Aging for Georgia, in the Department of Human Services, overseeing the Alzheimer’s and Related Dementia state plan, convening workgroups in the area.
“The state of Georgia has a plan regarding dementia,” Helmly said, “and I convened people from academia, from non-profits, policy, and healthcare on how we could approach the issue with an interdisciplinary solution in mind.”
She said some of the groups were working on things such as abuse and neglect, legislation, as well as training in assisted living and nursing homes. Studies in her master’s degree program prepared her for this, she said, as Helmly found aging in the prison system to be a particularly important area of study and research.
Helmy believes that Georgia actually stands out in the way the state handles the areas Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“We definitely have a lot of room to grow, but we’re very innovative and we have some really passionate people working towards things like person-centered language, abuse and neglect prevention, whether in the community or in places like nursing homes,” she said. But Georgia must strive to maintain its positive momentum.
Helmly hopes to use these kinds of experiences that Georgia State has opened up for her to pursue a career in gerontology, something that aligns with her passion for the study and for helping others.
—Braden Turner, Graduate Administrative Assistant, Office of the Provost