Hot Topic: Nursing Homes for Sex Offenders & Violent Offenders

LA- Infirm prisoners no threat

3-6-2009 Louisiana:

The recent refusal of the Louisiana State Pardon Board to release Angola inmate Douglas Dennis points to an increasingly expensive and worrisome situation within the Department of Corrections: the large number of infirm geriatric prisoners in state custody. With the economy in such bad shape and state taxpayers struggling, is it necessary that we continue to endlessly support those aging prisoners who are deemed to present no danger to the general public?

Dennis is 73 years old and confined to a wheelchair, having barely survived open-heart bypass surgery with complications resulting in many months of hospitalization at state expense. He has been incarcerated for nearly half a century, since he was in his 20s, and during his time in prison has made a number of positive contributions.

At Angola he implemented and ran the sports programs that provide much-needed physical release. He wrote thoughtful book reviews and judicial interpretations for The Angolite newsmagazine and co-wrote a textbook on criminal justice, and during the federally mandated integration of the prison population in the early 70s, he was one of the inmate leaders upon whom the administration relied to defuse a dangerously volatile situation. He has never excused nor denied the senseless stupidity of his criminal acts; instead, he has accepted responsibility and has paid with most of his life.

Now he has arrangements for housing and support outside Louisiana, and yet the Pardon Board summarily dismissed his application for release. As a crime writer and a crime victim myself, I well understand that there are incarcerated criminals who must remain behind bars for the protection of the public. I certainly do not condone violence and deeply sympathize with the suffering of victims and their survivors.

Yet at the hearing in Baton Rouge, pardon board members paid scant attention to several corrections professionals who offered their unqualified support for releasing Dennis. These were not emotional bleeding-heart liberals, but career criminologists and law enforcement officials whose opinions the board would have done well to heed.

Former Angola warden John Whitley, making what he said was his first and only appearance before a pardon board on behalf of an inmate, recalled earlier days at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola when he would arrive for work each morning to find a trail of blood from the dorms to the infirmary where inmates stabbed or beaten overnight had been dragged. Citing the uncontrolled violence within the prison in those days, he attempted to provide a feel for the atmosphere when the administrative staff relied on the judgment and assistance of only a few sensible inmates in attempts to control the prison population, and Douglas Dennis was one of those.

A former career FBI agent also spoke on Dennis' behalf, citing his ability to live outside prison as a contributing, taxpaying citizen without problems. Others attending the hearing, allowed to comment only in writing, included the former counsel for the state corrections department; the ex-wife of a deceased warden who cited his respect for Dennis; and the daughters of Elayn Hunt, late head of the corrections department, who said their mother's dying wish had been that Dennis, who had served as her inmate chauffeur, be released.

At the same Pardon Board hearing were considered requests from other inmates who undeniably presented a clear and continuing danger to the public; the board denied these applications, and rightfully so. But if the board routinely denies all applications without considering their individual merit, that removes one of corrections' officials most effective motivational tools, the hope of release in response to clean records and good behavior. It also means that Louisiana taxpayers must continue to bear the burden of supporting an over-the-hill gang of inmates whose increasing medical requirements and expensive support need not be the continuing responsibility of the state when there are safe alternatives, elderly sick inmates who are taking up space badly needed for more dangerous younger criminals. ..Source.. by Anne Butler, of St. Francisville, is an author.

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