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

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; B01

Just before lunch time at Deerfield Correctional Center, 60 men in wheelchairs stream across the prison courtyard and into the mess hall, followed closely 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, Virginia's only geriatric prison, is where the state's inmates are sent to grow old. They're transferred to this facility in Capron, near the North Carolina border, when they're too weak to stand or feed themselves, when they don't have much time left.

Since the General Assembly abolished parole 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 Correctional, 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.

Scrambling to handle the surge, 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 the facility's legion of 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.

Buddy Francis, 77, sits along the wall of the assisted living unit, in a row reserved for bedridden inmates. He was sentenced to 52 years for attempted capital murder. So far, he's served 28.

Francis tries his best to gesticulate as he talks, raising weak arms inches above his chest. "It don't make sense that they're still keeping me here," he said. "I'm not going to hurt nobody." He points to his thin legs, barely able to carry his weight. "I can't hurt nobody."

Under the 1995 Truth in Sentencing law, two types of inmates can still be paroled: prisoners over 60 and those convicted before the law took effect. That makes Francis eligible for parole. But since George Allen (R) was elected governor in 1993 with a promise to abolish parole, offenders have spent significantly more time behind bars. Fewer than 5 percent of inmates charged before 1995 have won reprieves since Allen's initiative passed, compared with 42 percent of eligible inmates who were granted parole in the years preceding the change in law.

Those over 60 face even slimmer odds. Only 15 of 1,000 eligible elderly inmates have won release.

That record has led to a class-action lawsuit against the state. "The law says these inmates are eligible for parole, but the Parole Board is acting as if they're not," said Bill Richardson, an Arlington attorney representing 11 inmates.

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.

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