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The Graying of the Prisons

Incarceration: Longer terms and fewer paroles give the state a growing number of old inmates. Many are easy prey for fellow cons and a financial burden on the system.


VACAVILLE, Calif. — Clifton Feathers killed a man in 1978, but he doesn't look dangerous anymore. Today he's a blind, old convict in a wheelchair, easy prey for younger prisoners who steal his snacks and keep him forever on edge.

Men and women like Feathers are an increasingly common sight in California's sprawling penal system. Though the state's overall prison population has been falling, the number of geriatric inmates has nearly tripled in the last dozen years, following a national trend.

Feeble, addled by Alzheimer's or just plain old, they are symbols of two forces that have defined California's approach to criminal justice for more than a decade: longer sentences and a dramatic decline in paroles.

They also have begun to strain prison budgets at a time when the state is facing a $24-billion deficit. Housing an old inmate can cost three times as much as housing a young one, studies show, mostly because the elderly are more often ill.

At the women's prison in Corona, for instance, vans carrying sick convicts make 350 trips a month to outside hospitals--at $233 per trip, just for the guards and gasoline.

Helen Loheac, 79, leaves three times a week for dialysis, a routine that has continued for nine years.

More typical is Ernest Pendergrass, 79, a World War II veteran at the prison in Vacaville. Pendergrass, a wheezing, shaky lifer who has survived four types of cancer and a stroke behind bars, is a walking medicine cabinet.

Pendergrass' daughter, a pharmacist, estimates his 12 daily pills run $1,800 a month. No one can guess what his surgeries, chemotherapy and other care have cost.

Those in charge of the California Department of Corrections are well aware of the graying prison population and the challenges it presents. But they have yet to tackle the problem head on.

In 1999, the department prepared an ambitious plan for an "older offender program" to better manage aging prisoners while saving taxpayers money. The message was clear: Act now, because the number of geriatrics will only continue to rise.

Three years later, it appears that warning has been mostly ignored by the Davis administration. Though many states have dedicated entire prisons to geriatrics and launched other programs to handle them in humane, cost-effective ways, California--with the nation's largest and most expensive penal system--has not.

The Old Are Treated Just Like the Young

Instead, the old are treated like the young by the state's 33 prisons, their problems handled on a case-by-case basis that varies from lockup to lockup.

There are no systemwide policies defined by age--not for housing, nutrition, health care, transfers or parole.

"They don't seem to recognize that prisoners get old and have different needs," said Laura Brisco, whose ailing 74-year-old father is assigned a top bunk in a cell with a 20-year-old who plays rap music all night long.

"We're not asking for special treatment, just common sense."

Michael Pickett, a deputy director of corrections, says California's approach to dealing with aging convicts amounts to handling it "through the side door, not the front door."

He defends the state's treatment of elderly inmates, and said upcoming improvements in how the prisons dispense medical care will make it even better.

But the man atop the state's correctional pyramid, Youth and Adult Correctional Secretary Robert Presley, is not proud of the current approach.

Prison Chief Concedes That Change Is Overdue

In an interview, Presley acknowledged that "a change in how we deal with this population is overdue."

Presley wants to start by clustering old inmates in one prison, an approach that, ironically, California pioneered in 1954 but later abandoned. Presley has included the idea in his agency's five-year plan, but he concedes it is not a priority for the Davis administration. Though a change might save money down the road, Presley says it would require some upfront investment that makes for a tough sell when the state is in fiscal distress.

As for other proposals--releasing the most frail, nonviolent geriatrics early, for example, or placing them in lower-security facilities to save money on guards--corrections officials say such changes are out of their hands. The law is clear, they say: If you do the crime, you do the time.

"Are there women here who are doing 25 years on a seven-to-life [sentence] and could probably be safely released into the community? Absolutely," said Warden John Dovey at the California Institution for Women in Corona. "But that's not my call."

Legislators Unwilling to Look Soft on Crime

Those empowered to make such calls have shown little inclination to do so. The law-and-order mood in the Legislature--at its peak with adoption of the "three strikes" measure in 1994--remains dominant, especially in an election year.

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