As prisoners age, should they go free?

Charlie Perkins has spent roughly half his life - 38 years - cooped up here at the Men's Prison near Milledgeville, Ga. Yet he's tried to carve out as orderly and productive a life as possible in this world of convicts and confined spaces.

He keeps his socks and shaving gear lined up neatly in his locker. He's one of few inmates here to hold a job. Bearing his trademark brush, towel, and polish, he's the prison bootblack, shining the shoes of guards.

Now Mr. Perkins, convicted of murder in 1965, is hoping to experience one other thing in his twilight years: freedom. As part of an effort to reduce overcrowding and save money, Georgia and several other states are considering releasing elderly inmates who are no longer deemed a threat to society.

None of this means that Men's Prison, the state's premier lockup for elderly convicts, is about to the throw open its doors willy nilly. Georgia remains a law-and-order state in the law-and-order South.

Yet officials here and nationwide are start-ing to debate the idea of releasing some of the elderly and infirm, largely because of one fact: Seniors represent the fastest-growing segment of the US prison population. After a decade of "get tough" laws that have pushed the national prison population to more than 2 million, state officials are not only dealing with a lack of prison beds, they're also footing the bill for increasingly costly healthcare behind bars.

"What's happening in Georgia is a sign that the sheer numbers of older prisoners are beginning to catch up with prison officials and politicians," says Ron Aday, director of the Division of Aging at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. It's one solution to tight budgets and overcrowding - but a controversial one, especially here, where the public is ambivalent about aged criminals' plight.

O brother, gray art thou

Founded by the English as a penal colony, Georgia is still a tough place to be an outlaw. Most Georgians - 84 percent - approved a recent constitutional amendment to deny parole to violent repeat offenders, and many states have gotten rid of parole boards altogether in favor of truth-in-sentencing laws. Georgia had about 500 older prisoners in 1980; it now houses 4,416. Nationally, the elderly prison population has doubled in the past decade, to 121,000, about 9 percent of the nation's total.

So far, states are accommodating the aged as best they can. Pennsylvania has built a state-of-the-art geriatric care facility for its infirm prisoners. About half the states now offer hospice care for their frailest inmates. At Angola Prison in Louisiana, a team of prisoners cares for the dying, carrying coffins by horse and buggy, followed by a line of praying, singing inmates, to the prison cemetery. And in a move toward staving off some health issues, Ohio has created fitness-in-prison programs for its older inmates.

The alternative to such accommodation, of course - and its average annual cost of $70,000 per inmate, compared with $22,000 for a healthy inmate - is early parole and medical reprieve.Though the California legislature this year rejected prison officials' pleas for a law releasing infirm prisoners, Georgia's aged inmates are counting on another story.

Rising care costs and wheelchair-leapers

Georgia has already released 49 inmates due to health issues. And in an unusual move, the state's chief parole officer, Milton "Buddy" Nix Jr., met with elderly inmates at Men's Prison this weekend to determine if some should be let out to ease the budget crisis.

"It's obvious to prison operators and anyone who goes inside that some considerable portion of [aging prisoners] could and should easily be out of there," says John Blackmore, a senior associate at the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI), a judicial think tank in Middleton, Conn. CJI has promoted a new kind of "functional assessment" to determine whether infirm inmates should be let out.

But even as wardens here worry about rising care costs for an elderly population expected to reach 6,000 by 2006, lawmakers insist those costs were figured into new "get tough" laws. "The growing number of older prisoners comes as no surprise," says Georgia's Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, pointing out that crime has decreased here since new sentencing laws took effect. "We have the tools to deal with this challenge."

It's no secret that some prisoners play the system. A few years ago, a prisoner arrived at Men's State from another facility and stayed in his wheelchair for six months after arriving wheelchair-bound - only to leap out of his chair and sprint away on being wheeled to an appointment in town. He was caught a few seconds later by a second, rifle-toting, guard.

"When that siren blows [to announce an escape], people stiffen up," says a waitress at the local Huddle House. "Some of these older guys are more dangerous than the younger ones."

'At our age, we don't do nothing'

But here in Men's Prison- a one-story brick building resembling a 1960s elementary school - some 650 inmates live orderly lives in gymnasium-sized dorms, wearing button-down shirts, belts, and pressed white slacks. When he comes into the yard, Warden Tydus Meadows is greeted by a loud "Sir, good morning, sir!"!" in unison as inmates line up wheel to wheel, walker to walker.

"This is all very un-Hollywood," says Paul Czachowski, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Corrections. "It's basically a nursing home behind bars."

Some, like septuagenarian Jessie Biggins, spend their time playing dominoes. Others, like Manuel Trevino, delve into fiction: "I've read over 100 books since I got here," he says. They have a chance to serve others, too: Men's runs one of the only shops in the country that translates school textbooks into Braille.

For some, a focus on aging inmates brings real hope: Mr. Trevino is in his 70s, with up to seven more years in prison. He insists he's harmless, and is keen to once again spend time with his 16 children and dozens of grandkids. "At our age," he says, "we don't do nothing no more."

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