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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.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

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.

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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.


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