Just before lunch at Virginia’s Deerfield Correctional Center, says the Washington Post, 60 men in wheelchairs stream across the prison courtyard and into the mess hall, followed by a group of inmates hobbling on canes, leaving the blind and the senile to shuffle inside last. Not far from this daily migration — dubbed the “wheelchair brigade” by prison employees — are two rooms full of elderly inmates too weak to make it outside. Deerfield, near the North Carolina border, is where the state’s inmates are sent to grow old. Since the state abolished parole releases for the newly convicted in 1995, the number of elderly inmates in custody has soared. In 1990, there were 900 inmates over the age of 50. Now there are more than 5,000.
Deerfield, which once housed 400 inmates, has become a 1,000-bed facility with a long waiting list. “We’re left trying to be both a nursing home and a prison,” said Keith Davis, the warden. The state has built a 57-bed assisted living facility at Deerfield, with rows of hospital beds filling a room the size of a high school gymnasium. They’ve added a special meal for diabetics, and they’ve hired nurses to keep round-the-clock watch on the infirmary’s 16 inmates. It’s an expensive endeavor: It costs $28,800 annually to house an inmate at Deerfield, compared with the $19,000 it costs at most of the state’s medium-security prisons. Fewer than 5 percent of inmates charged before 1995 have won parole reprieves since former Gov. George Allen’s initiative passed, compared with 42 percent of eligible inmates who were granted parole in the years preceding the change in law.