Ten frail, graying prisoners, half of them in wheelchairs and one on crutches, became the first inmates today of a Virginia state prison designed exclusively for ailing and aging prisoners.

The Deerfield Correctional Center, near the North Carolina line, is being converted for use by older prisoners. Baby boomers behind bars, like their contemporaries on the outside, are moving toward an age when they need assisted-living and nursing home care.

Today's group of inmates was the first of 40 who will be transferred to Deerfield in the next week or so. Eventually, there will be more than 200.

Except for their physical condition and age, the inmates who checked in today had profiles similar to those in Deerfield's general population. They have no more than 12 years left on their sentences, for crimes that ranged from drug possession to homicide, and are considered medium-security risks, according to Warden Patricia Edge.

Old age comes sooner to prisoners--50-year-olds are considered geriatrics--because of lives filled with violence, drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, poor diets and hit-and-miss medical care.

"Not taking care of yourself catches up on you as you get older," said Fred Schilling, director of health services for the Virginia Department of Corrections, who is coordinating the transfer of prisoners from several institutions to Deerfield, in Southampton County.

The Virginia facility is the latest example of a state prison system responding to the graying of its inmate population following the imposition of longer sentences and the abolition of parole. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that by 2005, inmates 50 and older will make up 16 percent of the prison population, up from 11 percent today.

Two years ago, the state of Washington opened a 130-bed, assisted-living prison, and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections proposed spending $24.5 million for a similar 150-bed facility.

Neither Maryland nor the District is considering separate prisons for older inmates, but both jurisdictions are experiencing the aging phenomenon.

In Maryland, many older prisoners have chosen to segregate themselves from younger ones by requesting a transfer to a 50-and-older wing at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup, known as "the old men's home."

But most sick and infirm inmates in Maryland are kept either in separate wings of regular prisons or transferred to prison hospital units, said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In the District, where the elderly prison population is nearing 10 percent, each prison facility may designate a dormitory for geriatric inmates, corrections spokesman Darrel J. Madden said.

The Virginia facility takes the Washington state experiment one step further by offering both assisted-living and skilled nursing care.

Eventually, Deerfield's current population of 530 medium-security inmates will be replaced by 207 prisoners who require assistance in their daily life, either because of age or infirmity, along with 80 regular inmates who will help with maintenance and housekeeping.

Deerfield was chosen for the conversion because its one-story construction allowed for barrier-free access and its flat topography will allow disabled inmates to move about the grounds easily.

The assisted-living prison is part of strategic planning set in motion two years ago by Corrections Director Ronald J. Angelone, Schilling said. "We recognized that we must be proactive in addressing the challenges of older inmates, and those who are physically challenged," Schilling said.

But the impetus was as much fiscal as philosophical.

"It's going to save money," Schilling said. Many of the ailing inmates are being transferred from infirmaries where the cost to the state is $100 a day, while the daily cost in the assisted-living unit is expected to be only $30.

Most of the inmates selected for transfer need assistance with at least one or two daily activities, such as dressing or bathing, Schilling said. The oldest to arrive is 77.

He said some of the correctional officers at Deerfield will be more "treatment officers" than guards.

"We're not going to treat them as if they can't do anything," Warden Edge said. "Our pace might slow a little, but they'll all be expected to do as much as they can possibly do."

Elderly Inmates

Forty inmates who are beginning to need assisted-living and nursing home care are being transferred to the Deerfield Correctional Center. The Virginia facility is responding to the graying of the state's inmate population.

Total inmates

Virginia

Maryland

District

28,807

22,000

6,546

Inmates over age 50

Virginia

Maryland

District

1,705

1,223

624

Percent of total inmates:

Virginia

Maryland

District

5.9%

5.5%

9.5%

SOURCE: Virginia, Maryland and D.C. Departments of Corrections