THE elderly gentleman - white-haired, stockily built, with a square-jawed, kindly face - seems absorbed by the flowers he's watering. ``I never was interested in plants before,'' he says, ``wished I had been now.'' For the past four years, Daniel E. Patterson has been in prison, convicted of killing his wife.
``We got along good,'' he quietly explains, ```but we both got drinking at the wrong time. We had everything we wanted, we didn't owe a dime, owned our own house.''
He turns back to his watering for a few seconds. ``It was just something that jumped up in a minute,'' he adds. He'd never been in trouble with the law before, except for a drunk driving incident in the distant past.
Mr. Patterson's background typifies that of many of the few thousand older inmates tucked away in various corners of the American penal system. Research has indicated that proportionately more of these inmates (around 70 percent) have committed violent crimes than the general prison population (55 percent). Domestic violence, often stimulated by alcohol, is common. Nearly half are over 55 when they first enter prison. Most become exemplary inmates - quiet, hardworking - once they're in the system.
A recent study by the National Institute of Corrections, drawing on the latest survey data available, points out that some 8,853 people aged 55 and older were held in state and federal prisons at the end of 1981. That would have been about 2.3 percent of the overall prison population.
Those figures are likely to rise, according to Janet Nesbitt, director of national correctional policy for the American Correctional Association.
``It's a small population, but one that is growing, and we anticipate it'll grow even more,'' she says. Trends towards longer sentences and incarcerating people regardless of age will contribute to this, she feels. Demographic shifts increasing the overall numbers of older Americans are another factor.
``As sentence lengths get longer, I anticipate a much larger geriatric population,'' says William Leeke, commissioner of corrections for South Carolina. ``I suspect it's eventually going to be a national problem.''
The word ``problem'' comes into play because, though older inmates are generally cooperative and stabilizing, they do have particular needs. Health care, first of all, then appropriate recreational and vocational outlets. Finally, they may need to be insulated from younger, sometimes violence-prone prisoners.
``The issue used to be to separate the young from the older because the older inmates were such a bad influence,'' says Mr. Leeke. ``But in some ways that's reversed, because the younger can be so hard on the older.'' Beyond occasional violence, or the fear of it, there's the wide gap in habits and tastes - in type and loudness of music, for example.
At the State Park facility, where Patterson tends his flowers, only inmates 55 or older, with some kind of special health need, are regularly admitted. There are a few younger men, too, transferred from other institutions to help maintain the buildings and grounds of the former hospital, as well as help take care of some of the handicapped elderly. A small number of older women inmates occupy a separate, red-brick wing. The prison has a 250-bed capacity.
In this benevolent setting - no wall, no barbed wire, no overcrowding - the generations seem to mix harmoniously. Wiry, ebony-skinned Henry Boulware, an 87-year-old who describes himself as ``a young fellow yet,'' says he gets on fine with the younger men. ``I give them respect and they give me the same.'' He's serving time for shooting an acquaintance who owed him money and started insulting his family when asked to pay up. Toting a red fly swatter, Mr. Boulware smiles and sums up his way of life on the ``inside'': ``I don't give anybody no trouble. I get along with the inmates and read my Bible.''
He also keeps in touch with his family - some ``seven to 15 children,'' as he puts it - through monthly visits. Many other elderly prisoners have either outlived or lost touch with friends and relatives.
In a locale geographically distant yet similar in atmosphere - the wooded, farmlike setting of Massachusetts Correctional Institution, Shirley - a strapping 70-year-old inmate makes somewhat parallel comments. He's one of the three inmates there, out of 255, who are over 60. With 20 years of a life sentence for murder behind him, he's been known to take young prisoners under his wing - and to keep them in line, when necessary.
``If I see them doing something wrong, I yell at them! And they'd rather get a `ticket' [a written reprimand from the superintendent] than that,'' he asserts.
This septuagenarian, who asked that his name not be used, has seen every nook of the Massachusetts prison system. He started his sentence with four years on death row at Walpole, the state's toughest penitentiary. That's virtually wiped from his memory now, he says. His work, at Shirley and every other prison he's occupied, has also been gardening. ``I beautify the place. My thing is flowers. When people say, `Aren't they beautiful, the roses,' that makes me happy.''
His difficulties in getting the governor to commute his sentence make him very unhappy. ``Twenty years and no `tickets','' he mourns, and still no pardon. He glances out the window at the spectacular winter landscape girdling MCI Shirley and laments, ``The place is nice, but I want to go home.''
Back in South Carolina, State Park warden Judy Andersen explains that ``We strive to treat older people with dignity.'' She makes a point of referring to ``residents'' instead of ``inmates,'' and her staff address the men and women here as ``Mr.'' or ``Miss.''
It would be a mistake, however, to assume there are never problems in minimum-security institutions like hers. She relates the time one often angelic-looking woman inmate stabbed another with a fork in a burst of anger.
Disciplining the older inmate can be ``interesting,'' she observes. Punishments that work for younger people, like confinement to quarters, are counterproductive for the elderly, who need to be encouraged to be more active.
A number of inmates here, as at MCI Shirley in Massachusetts, are on work release in neighboring communities; many, like Patterson, choose to spend their time working in and around the large, immaculately organized greenhouse, or on various crafts projects.
Take Mary Perry, for instance. While at the State Park facility, she has developed a line of crocheted stuffed animals she sells to toy dealers outside. She also does ``most any kind of top spread,'' such as Indian patterns highlighted with beads, and hopes to move into a sewing job when her sentence for forgery is up next August.
``Let me tell you something,'' she says, frowning. ``Being in prison is no fun. But it's way better here at this place than at the women's center'' (where she was formerly incarcerated). ``You get more attention and there's not that much confusion in it.''