After being fingerprinted and photographed, 87-year-old Dottie Neeley sat quietly in the local jail, imprisoned as much by the tubing from her oxygen tank as the concrete and steel surrounding her.

Neeley, who sometimes uses a wheelchair, is among a growing number of senior citizens charged in a crackdown on the illegal trade of prescription drugs, a crime that authorities say is rampant in the mountains of central Appalachia.

Floyd County jailer Roger Webb said seniors have a ready market for their prescription pills, especially painkillers, and some may be succumbing to the temptation of selling their medications.

"When a person is on Social Security, drawing $500 a month, and they can sell their pain pills for $10 apiece, they'll take half of them for themselves and sell the other half to pay their electric bills or buy groceries," Webb said.

Since April 2004, the anti-drug task force Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigation Treatment and Education) has charged more than 40 people age 60 and older with selling drugs in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. It's a trend that Webb said has been growing over the past five years, since police began cracking down on illegal sales of prescription drugs.

"It used to be a rare occasion to have an elderly inmate," Webb said. "Five years ago it was a rarity."

Dan Smoot, a former state police drug detective who heads the task force, said the senior citizens being charged aren't always struggling to put food on the table.

"Most of the elderly we arrest are merely continuing a family tradition," he said. "It has been part of their culture for a long time."

Webb said jails have to bear the increased cost of caring for aging inmates.

"You've got to give them more attention," he said. "It's putting a strain on my deputies. We're understaffed anyway. You've got to get them doctors and meet their medical needs."

In nearby Pike County, jailer Rodney Scott said the overall increase in elderly inmates is small but noticeable. He said senior citizens have more health problems than younger inmates, which means they require more time and attention from his staff.

The Rev. Doug Abner, pastor of Community Church in Manchester and an anti-drug crusader, said seniors may not understand the seriousness of selling prescription drugs.

"They justify it because they're having a hard time financially," he said. "Left to ourselves, we can justify anything, but they're really part of the problem."

Anita Cornett, a Hyden physician, said she does random drug screenings to make sure her patients are taking their medication instead of selling it. In addition, staff members routinely call patients and ask them to bring their prescription bottles into the office to account for all the pills.

Cornett said one of her patients, a recovering drug addict, told her that he had never bought drugs from a known dealer. "All of the drugs he bought were from elderly people who had prescriptions for them," she said.

Just how many senior citizens are selling their medication is anyone's guess, Cornett said: "I would hope it's a small percentage."

Abner, whose church keeps food on hand for the needy, said seniors in financial pinches have legal ways to restock their pantries or to pay utility bills.

Neeley, who was arrested along with her son and his girlfriend, would face up to10 years in prison if convicted of trafficking in prescription drugs and marijuana. But a prosecutor has agreed to a five-year sentence and has promised not to oppose "shock probation" if Neeley pleads guilty at her next court appearance. Under shock probation, a defendant who is unlikely to repeat the crime is released after getting a brief taste of life in prison.

Neeley's attorney, Terry Jacobs, said the plea bargain would be a gamble. He said if the judge doesn't grant the motion for shock probation, Neeley could die in prison.

"It's been our position all along that six months is a death sentence for her," Jacobs said.

In a telephone interview, Neeley said she has emphysema and asthma and uses oxygen daily. She said she was surprised when police arrived to arrest her, making the 4-foot-8-inch, 120-pound woman walk from her house to a cruiser.

"I had to hold my hands up all the way," she said. "They wouldn't let me hold them down."

Neeley said she doesn't know why she was included in the roundup of drug dealers last December.

"I was always against drugs," she said.

Jacobs declined to discuss specifics of the charges. But speaking generally, he said he believes most seniors who sell prescription drugs do so for economic reasons.

"You've got a depressed economy," he said. "You've got an opportunity for these folks to make money. If you're seeing a disproportionate number of elderly, it's because they are the people who are going to be prescribed most of the drugs."

Jacobs said seniors charged with drug crimes may actually be victims of hard-core drug abusers or traffickers.

"Besides infants and children, they're the most vulnerable people in our society," he said. "When you have a segment of society that is so desperate for these pills that they will rob and steal, they certainly are not beyond manipulating an elderly person."

Dottie Neeley, 87, could get up to 10 years in prison if she is convicted of drug trafficking.