The Graying of America's Prisons: Part Two


15791177_be40c4c742Part two of our special report explores the movements in several states to relieve the burdens and tragedy America's increasingly geriatric prison population

Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, members of the Angola 3, have spent most of the past 37 years in lockdown in Louisiana.

A civil action currently in federal court claims that both men, now in their 60s, have suffered serious harm to their physical and mental health from their years in isolation, spending 23 hours a day alone in 6 x 9 foot cells.

What distinguishes this case in particular is that it not only challenges the constitutionality of long-term, continuous solitary confinement, but draws on its particular effect on aging prisoners.

According to medical reports submitted to the court, the men suffer from arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression. Wallace, who just celebrated his 67th birthday, has also become hard of hearing, and has had increasing difficulty communicating with attorneys or friends, on the phone and during visits.

Under the Americans for Disabilities Act, he and other hearing impaired inmates should receive whatever special care they require. In Wallace's case, according to one of his attorneys, the prison [he has been transferred out of lockdown at Angola to lockdown at Hunt near Baton Rouge.] gave him one–not two–hearing aids, which made matters worse by adversely effecting his balance. (The prison has promised to provide a second hearing aid.)

Many older offenders suffer from serious mental illness-some of it produced or exacerbated by lengthy incarcerations. One study revealed depression among male prisoners was 50 percent higher than for those living outside. All in all, 54 percent of older prisoners met standards for psychiatric disorders. Williams and Abraldes write: “In one report from a maximum-security hospital, 75 percent of elderly prisoners were admitted between age 20 and 30 and the majority were schizophrenic.”

At Louisiana's Angola Prison, the warden reported that 2,000 of over 5,000 inmates were on psychotropic drugs. Many mentally ill prisoners are simply warehoused and fed drugs to keep them under control. Even worse, some are labeled “discipline” problems, and end up in solitary confinement. A 2006 report from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons found that mentally ill prisoners are increasingly being relegated to isolation cells where they live in “torturous conditions that are proven to cause mental deterioration.”

For the most part, however, old prisoners have far fewer disciplinary problems than younger inmates. A study to be released in January by Kristie Blevins and Anita Blowers, criminologists at the University of North Carolina, suggests that the older people present less of a disciplinary problem than younger inmates, and their offenses are relatively minor. The 2004 study looked at 428 men between the ages of 55-84 in state correctional facilities around the U.S.. Past studies have found that many perceived behavior problems among the elderly can be attributed to “victimization,” that is, getting harassed and beaten by other inmates.

Low Recidivism

In addition to causing less trouble inside, older offenders released from prison have a low recidivism rate. They are also likely to cost taxpayers far less than the $70,000 a year which, according to Williams and Albraldes, is the average expense of keeping a geriatric inmate imprisoned. The continued incarceration of these aging and dying inmates, then, clearly does not serve to protect society. Its only purpose is punishment.

In 2008, the federal government launched the Elderly Offender Home Detention Pilot Program, under which prisoners aged 65 and over can be released into a kind of supervised house arrest. As outlined by Families Against Mandatory Mimimums, eligibility guidelines are strict: offenders must have served at least 10 years and 75 percent of their sentences; no lifers and no perpetrators of “crimes of violence,” including sex crimes and firearms violations. Total number expected to participate: 80 to 100 nationwide, out of a total federal prison population of over 200,000.

Pennsylvania's onerous law on compassionate release, dating from 1919, was revised last year so that old dying prisoners might be released into custody of family or friends–provided the corrections department did not find them to be a security risk and they were equipped with electronic monitoring devices.

According to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which tracks the reform, “It provides for: release to a hospital, hospice, or other licensed provider for terminally ill prisoners or those dying within one year. A home with licensed care may also be approved but then the prisoner will have electronic monitoring.” But the effect of this purported reform is unclear because the courts haven't decided how to interpret it. Susan McNaughton of the Pennsylvania Department of corrections said statistics concerning compassionate release are scant, but in the past, “on average about six inmates are released from PA state prisons annually this way. I am not aware of any such releases since this new law was enacted.”

Before such releases can take place, attorneys for an old and ill prisoner will have to take the case through the Pennsylvania court system. It must go before the state superior court which, according to an attorney with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, another group that has been involved in the reform, could take two years

This may well be too long for Tiyo Attallah Salah, 76, an inmate at Dallas prison near Wilkes-Barre currently serving life without parole. A former jazz musician, Salah has developed long-distance relationships with a large network of friends, including Lois Ahrens of the organization Real Cost of Prisons, Marina Drummer of the Angola 3, and historian Howard Zinn, whose support helped him earn a college degree and study law. He now tutors other inmates and has assisted 250 prisoners in earning their GED high school equivalency diplomas. Salah currently is sponsoring a prison abolition group from inside Dallas.

Salah suffers also from high blood pressure, arthritis and prostate problems, and nearly died from diabetes last year. The prison pumped the old man full of steroids to keep him going. Like all prisoners, he has to walk up and down flights of stairs, to the shower and to meals. Salah's job was cleaning showers on his hands and knees, and even though increasingly ill, he didn't want to give up the job because it earned him 20 -40 cents an hour, money he used to purchase goods at the prison commissary, such things as socks, sweat pants, tea, maybe a hat.

In early November, he told Ahrens there was no heat in the cell block and he was trying to get more clothes. Ahrens, who is in close contact with Salah, says at one point he could scarcely walk. He has been saved by a broad network of friends inside as well as outside the prison, with younger inmates stepping in to take over his job, bringing him something special to eat from time to time, like a piece of fruit.

At Norfolk prison in Massachusetts, a state which has no compassionate care law–and where one in six prisoners is serving a life sentence–offenders have banded together in an organization called Lifers' Group. They have drawn up a model bill they hope can be introduced into the state legislature. Fred Smith of St Francis House, which currently helps newly released prisoners in adjusting to society, recently was invited by the group to give a talk inside the prison. He found more than 100 prisoners turned out to hear his offer of support.

The long-termers' model bill would permit the corrections department to grant a medical release to prisoners who are not judged to be a danger to society, when they face terminal or when “confinement will substantially shorten the prisoner's life.''

Frank Soffen, whose case was described in Part One of this Special Report, is cited by Lifers' Group as an example of an offender the new law could help. But Soffen, too, may die long before any reforms take place.

The final consequence of the aging prison population, and especially of life sentences, is that more and more offenders are dying in prison. Angola, home to 5,000 offenders, is well known for its hospice, where trained inmates ease the last days of fellow prisoners; the program is cited as a model for other prisons to emulate,. You can get an idea of what it's like by looking at a documentary film on the hospice by Edgar Barens, called Angola Prison Hospice: Opening the Door.

The hospice sees plenty of use, since an estimated 85 percent to 90 percent of the prisoners who enter the gates will never leave. Angola's warden, Burl Cain, is also proud of the fact that the prison has its own mortuary, coffin-making shop, and a cemetery called Point Lookout, and gives each prisoner a funeral service. “Two funerals a month,” Cain told one Christian publication, “that’s just about the only way out of here.”

Colonel Bolt, the former Angola prisoner who got out after 20 years in solitary, knows he is an exception to the rule. But he says that some men have spent so long at Angola that they can't even envision living out their old age on the outside. “They've been down so long,” Bolt said, that “they don't have no friends…don't have no lawyers. There's nothing out there for them.…They concentrate on things keeping you going… [They want to] occupy time…writing, drawing.” When these men think of what's going on outside, he said, “they get so frustrated…don't see no way out”–so some of them simply stop thinking about it.

Some prisoners can't even imagine going home to die, because they've had no home but Angola for most of their lives. When they die, Bolt said, “If the family got the money–they can bury them outside. Send the body to the front gate and [someone] will come get it out.” But many prisoners who “get to certain age,” he said, no longer have family, and no one who is “going to spend that money” for a coffin or a funeral.

When this happens, he continues, they “bury you down on the plantation….Old partners, old friends can take care of you…Go down to Point Lookout. A lot of cats want to be buried by their friends….[They say] 'I'm going to live here and die here…if I got out what can I do?' If you got three life sentences, four life sentences, what are you going to do?''

James Ridgeway is the senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones.

Photo by Algo via Flickr.

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