`BY the year 2000, there will be 125,000 prisoners in United States prisons over the age of 55," says Jonathan Turley, "and prisons make lousy nursing homes."
Mr. Turley, a law professor and director of the Project for Older Prisoners (POPS) at George Washington University, is at the forefront of a growing effort to remove low-risk, often-neglected elderly prisoners from the nation's overcrowded prisons for practical and humanitarian reasons.
Today there are an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 prisoners over 55 incarcerated in federal and state prisons. It is one of the fastest-growing segments of the prison population and the most costly.
Because older prisoners require more medical care and attention, each inmate can cost nearly $60,000 a year to maintain, compared with $20,000 for younger prisoners.
"Most prisons in this country," Turley says,"were built according to the model of a young, dangerous, and healthy prisoner. That model is fast becoming obsolete."
Over the last decade or so, as violent crime has increased, criminals have been sentenced to longer prison terms and are growing older in prison. "Getting tough on crime has fueled overcrowding," Turley says, "but has done little to deal with the institutional limitations that we have in this country."
Currently, 42 states are under court order to relieve overcrowding. "It's no longer a question today of whether or not somebody is going to be released," says Turley, "the question is who."
POPS suggests one answer is clear; on a case-by-case basis, prisons should release older, low-risk inmates to cut prison costs and reduce the pressures on the country's 600 prison hospitals, 90 percent of which do not meet standards established by the institutional medical profession.
POPS was launched in 1989 when Turley, an attorney and then a professor at Tulane University, represented Quenton Brown, a 67-year-old Louisiana prison inmate with an IQ of 51. Nineteen years earlier, the homeless Mr. Brown had held up a bread store and took $100 and a 15-cent pie. Then he hid under a house until the police came.
When Turley met Brown - his first visitor in 16 years - Brown had served 18 years of a 30-year sentence. Turley managed to convince prison officials and a judge that Brown was of minimal danger to anyone. In addition, statistics prove that the recidivism rate for released prisoners over 45 is only 2 percent. Brown was released and now lives and works in Florida.
Word quickly traveled along the inmate grapevine about Turley's work. Many other older prisoners contacted him. Turley took on a few more cases and eventually held a public meeting on the Tulane campus to see if he could interest students in helping him. "I thought I had walked into the wrong room," Turley says. "There were more than 250 students there."
POPS was born, and since 1989 more than 500 prisoners have been helped by several hundred volunteer students, mostly from law schools, who gain valuable experience in dealing with courts and prison bureaucracies. Some students get course credits for their work.
TURLEY has worked with various legislators around the country helping them develop new policies and legislation affecting older prisoners. Recently, he testified before the US Sentencing Commission, advocating a change in federal sentencing guidelines favoring alternate forms of dealing with older prisoners. "We don't argue for the general release of older prisoners," says Turley. "A decrease in crime kicks in around age 30 and gets progressively more apparent as the person gets older. We put older priso ners into three groups: high-risk, mid-risk and low-risk."
POPS holds that some mid-risk older prisoners are not yet ready for general release, but are suited for electronic leg bracelets (movements monitored electronically) or for placement in the few prison nursing homes around the country where specific geriatric treatment is available.
A state prison official lauds POPS but says the extra attention and support most older prisoners need will simply be transferred to other agencies in the community.
"From a humanitarian standpoint, it makes sense," he says. "But prison costs won't ever go down until the factors which cause crime are addressed."
Kathy Frey, a third-year law student at George Washington, is working on the case of a 74-year-old double amputee named Clyde, who has been diagnosed as having severe eye and heart problems. He was convicted of second-degree murder in a tangled case eight years ago and is being held in a prison in Virginia.
Ms. Frey interviewed Clyde for three hours in prison and is virtually reconstructing the facts of his life, but she is not yet at the point of making an official recommendation. "If any major inconsistencies come up," she says, "we don't continue. But on the basis of what I know, he would be a low risk for release." Turley monitors the student's progress on each case.
Time and again the older prisoners tell Turley and the students that the last thing they want is to die in prison. "The reality is," Frey says, "that Clyde wants to live the rest of his life peacefully outside of prison."
Phil Song, a second-year law student at George Washington, is working on the case of a 60-year-old inmate in Virginia who has served 15 years for murdering his second wife. "I got involved because I wanted the litigation experience," he says, "and to provide a benefit for those who need it."