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MO- Missouri uses special unit to cope with growing numbers of geriatric inmates

8-17-2008 Missouri:

Missouri inmate Larry Burton, 66, has just one crime on his record, but it is as dark as dried blood.

“I’m in here for killing my wife,” the former St. Louis area engineer said in a prison visiting room.

“I’m not proud of it, but it was a shotgun,” he said. “She was asleep at night and never knew what hit her.”

That was in 1990, when Burton was 48. He got life plus 15 years and is now part of the nation’s growing population of aging prisoners with costly health-care needs.

As states and the federal government struggle to deal with the result of inmates serving more time, corrections experts seek solutions or at least ways to cope. One is the “Old Timer’s Unit” at Moberly Correctional Center. Burton is one of 22 prisoners there. The average age is 63.

Kansas provides hospice care at prisons and is building a $6 million clinic at Lansing that will house its sickest male prisoners. Florida has geriatric wings in four prisons.

In California’s huge penal system, a federal receiver who oversees prisons recently asked a judge to seize $8 billion from the state to build medical units for sick and mentally ill inmates.

In light of the mounting costs, some experts suggest releasing far more of these older inmates. Research shows older inmates are much less likely than younger ones to commit crimes again after leaving prison.

In a balance between high costs and fear, society needs to take a smarter approach, said Lonn Lanza-Kaduce, chairman of the criminology department at the University of Florida. But, he said, “some old codger is going to get released and do damage” and become a Willie Horton-like “attention grabber.”

“People should look systematically at what is happening instead of the dramatic exception,” he said.

In a December hearing before a U.S. House committee, a Justice Department representative presented another view. He attacked a bill that would have allowed the release of nonviolent criminals who were at least 45 years old and had served half their sentences.

“This legislation would be completely contrary to the longstanding policy of the United States government,” said Drew Wrigley, U.S. district attorney of North Dakota and “subvert … the federal government’s criminal justice system of truth in sentencing.”

There are other tough issues. Does letting killers out early show a lack of respect for dead victims and heinous crimes? Are the many older sex offenders still a threat, especially ones whose crimes came later in life?

“It seems like nothing is cut-and-dried,” said Bill Miskell, a spokesman for the Kansas corrections department.

Meanwhile, more prisoners are aging behind bars. Only 5.24 percent of Missouri inmates were over the age of 50 in 1995, compared with 13.4 percent last year. In Kansas it was 6.1 percent in 1995 and twice that last year.

A cell to themselves

The Old Timer’s Unit could be one way to cope. It is in a small section of the sprawling acreage of brick and glistening razor wire of the Moberly prison. It opened in 1994 for well-behaved older and sicker inmates. Partly, it protects them from younger bullies.

The old prison has no air conditioning. Only huge fans in hallways and small fans in the tiny cells cool the sultry Midwestern air. A cage separates the old timers from other inmates. A stroll along the unit’s catwalk found many of the gray solid-steel doors open.

Like the younger prisoners, the old timers work and can leave their cells during the day.

Each cell is a steel-walled room, 7 1/2 feet by 9 feet, with a small louvered glass window on one wall that lets in wisps of outside air. Some prisoners place their fans and cassette tape players on their small desks. A few books line up on some desks. Shirts or other clothes somehow hang neatly from the steel walls.

Unlike the other inmates, these men do not share their cells. Perhaps most important to them, they have their own toilet and a small sink.

Each cell has a button that can be used to call for medical help.

Fred Givens, 67, shot and wounded his girlfriend and a man with her in 1984 in Kansas City. He suffers from chronic asthma and said the unit was the best thing that could have happened to him.

“You don’t have to walk to a toilet and you have hot and cold water right there.”

And people there get along. Givens said: “I’ve never seen fights up there. We don’t think about violence.”

Few are released

The Old Timer’s Unit remains the only one of its kind in the state, but that could change, Warden Dean Minor said. He is on a corrections department task force studying how to handle the aging prisoner problem.

Putting them in a cell alone made obvious sense because some could not climb to a top bunk, he said, and the personal toilet and sink give them privacy.

“At that juncture in life,” he said, “privacy becomes more of an issue.”

Reducing problems for prisoners reduces problems for the staff, he said. “We’re not trying to give them special favors, but we’re trying to meet their special needs,” Minor said.

Occasionally a man placed there does not work out, he said, and it becomes obvious. “I don’t mean to say we’ve got a bunch of grumpy old men up there, but it just takes one to irritate them all.”

A long list of inmates awaits entry into the unit, but once there, few get released.

Only two have been freed directly from it, the warden said. Also, some sex offenders were moved from the unit to an 18-month sex offender treatment program elsewhere for possible release. A dozen of about 150 men who have spent time in the unit died there or at hospitals, he said.

In general, Minor breaks down older prisoners this way:

•One third are aging lifers.

•Another third are there for crime after crime — “life on the installment plan.”

•The final third enter prison later in life, usually for serious crimes like sex offenses or murder.

“Once you get over 60, you don’t see many petty thieves,” Minor said.

Parole denied twice

The guards who usher Burton into the visiting room said the wife-killer was a hard man to dislike. Friendly and bright-eyed behind thick glasses, he made no excuses.

In 13 miserable years of marriage, he and his wife argued often at home but not in front of others. “The marriage wasn’t working; she didn’t believe in divorce.”

One day he was upset and distraught and he killed, he said. He’s sorry, remorseful, and now knows: “There are a lot of ways to end a relationship without killing your wife.”

Burton first came up for parole in 2003 and didn’t get it. He failed again two months ago.

“All they tell you is if they release you now, it would depreciate the seriousness of the crime,” he said.

Burton illustrates the dilemma that parole boards face.

What does society do with an aging killer, like Burton, who expresses remorse? ..News Source.. by JOE LAMBE, The Kansas City Star

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