Page 2 of 2   <      

Virginia's prison system struggles to handle the surge in elderly inmates

Virginia's strict parole laws have led to a soaring number of elderly men behind bars.

State officials say the low parole rate reflects the fact that most nonviolent criminals have been released over the past 14 years, leaving mainly harder-core criminals behind bars. "These inmates might be old, and they might no longer pose a threat, but this is the price of committing a heinous crime," said Rick Kern, director of the Virginia Sentencing Commission, which oversees state sentencing guidelines.

The trend in Virginia foreshadowed a national trend. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of inmates 55 or older in state and federal prisons grew 76.9 percent, from 43,300 to 76,600, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Ray Tatum, 73, bedridden and hard of hearing, is one of the few lucid residents of Deerfield's infirmary. Sentenced to 35 years for murder, Tatum lies surrounded by buzzing oxygen pumps and cawing inmates, several of whom suffer from dementia.

"I run this show," Tatum said, smiling.

"Mr. Tatum, remember that you are in prison," replied Dawn Mosena, the infirmary nurse manager.

To Tatum's right, 86-year-old Aloysius Beyrer rambles incoherently. Pale and unable to use the bathroom without assistance, he relies on nurses and other inmates to roll him over so he doesn't get bedsores.

Beyrer, serving a 100-year sentence for rape and aggravated battery, will likely die in this room.

Those elderly inmates who do win release after decades behind bars find life outside Deerfield lonely and stressful. "They've outlived their families," said Mosena, the nurse manager. "They've burned bridges. It's something they ruminate on for years before they leave."

Some parolees are sent to local nursing homes. Others find long-lost relatives willing to care for them. And about twice a month, inmates die here -- days, months or years away from their scheduled release dates.

"We let the families come in, we let them sit on the bed with their loved ones," Davis said. "We try to be as respectful as we can."

At moments like that, even the warden doubts the logic of geriatric incarceration: "You see that kind of human frailty, and it's hard not to question what we're doing here."

Last month, Tatum got the best news of his life. After three decades, the parole board made him one of only about 200 prisoners to win a reprieve this year. In two weeks, he plans to move into his sister's trailer in Baltimore. "The first thing I'm going to do is eat a huge McDonald's cheeseburger," Tatum said.

For the past year, Daryl Elliott has been Tatum's caregiver. To cut costs, Deerfield assigns younger inmates to be wheelchair pushers, paying them between 23 and 45 cents an hour to take care of elderly prisoners.

Elliott scrubs Tatum at night and takes him to the recreation yard each day. There, barbed wire and watchtowers remind them that Deerfield is hardly a nursing home. "But it sure feels like an old folks' home sometimes," Elliott said. "At first, it was hard to be surrounded by all this aging and dying."

Even harder for many younger caretakers with long sentences is knowing that someday they will be the ones bathed and fed and wheeled outside for a few moments in the sun.

"There was somebody in that bed before, and there's going to be somebody in that bed after," Elliott said.

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company