Category Archives: Unsilent Series

“Three Old Farts”

Guest Post by Lane Nelson

Editor’s note: One of the fastest growing subcultures in American life is that of old people struggling through their last years in prison: The old lady who in her twenties  shot and killed  an abusive husband. The parapalegic bank robber who once tried to escape. The 78 year old, who can barely walk and seems a goner ever since the prison guards pulled his meds. The mentally ill man who hasn’t seen sunlight in 10 years. All spend out their lives–20-40-60 year stretches–behind bars.

Their sole desire is to die in the free world, and though they are rendered utterly harmless by age, few states have program to release aging inmates. And so, at great financial cost to society, they must live out their lives in prison. If they are the lucky ones, the end may come in a prison hospice where they are carred for by fellow inmates, whose sole rehabilitation to society has been their education as gentle, caring nurses–behind bars.

As for the judges who banished them to their fate, they for the most part  ignore them, as do the politicians who introduced their draconian sentences. Bills to let them out wander through the state legislatures, succeeding in one court, being thrown back in another, year after year.

All this by way of introducing the work of Lane Nelson. While serving time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Lane Nelson spent 18 years as a staff writer and later managing editor for the nation’s most renowned prison magazine, The Angolite. He covered a wide range of subjects, including Angola’s longtermer population and hepatitis-C behind bars, and he interviewed and profiled several men just days before their executions. Nelson himself spent two years on death row–at one point coming within five days of being executed–before a judge overturned his death sentence citing inadequate counsel.

Lane Nelson eventually received a pardon based on good behavior and his volunteer work at Angola. In January he rejoined the free world after 29 1/2 years behind bars. Nelson has opened his own business, Capital Punishment Consulting Agency (CPCA), offering services that extend outside the area of the death penalty to general matters concerning criminal justice and prison life, and he is available for speaking engagements.

He also writes fiction, much of it based on personal experiences from his years at Angola. The story that follows is one of the best depictions of  the life of the old, inside prison or out, that I have ever read.

. . . . . . . . . . .

The orange ball inched over the Tunica Hills that border Mississippi and Louisiana, turning the expansive wheat fields into a glazing golden hue.  Frency sat on a bent up plastic coke crate in back of the wood-framed clothing room, cup of black coffee in hand and a crimped hand-rolled cigarette hanging from his cracked lips.  He wiped the sweat bead rolling down and aged crease in his cheek.  Another dog-day of summer.   Staring through the razor-wire topped chainlink fence separating him from the fields of wheat, Frenchy thought about the dazzling sparkle the sun gave the deadly razor wire; how it symbolized the external beauty of this 18,000-acre maximum-security prison set in the Mississippi River basin of east-central Louisiana, while depicting the despair among its 5,102 inhabitants.  After 27 years chained to this beauty and unable to taste its pleasures, Frenchy was neither sad nor angry at the irony.   He had long ago grown numb.

            The sound of work whistle jarred Frenchy from his trance and signaled an end to the quiet morning and beginning of another monotonous work day.  Nearly all the 150 trustee prisoners filed out of the three dormitories headed for their work assignment.  He watch “Hog Head” bounce out of dorm 2, leading the other inmate tractor drivers on the  half-mile walk to the tractor shed.  Tractor drivers put in 10 hours of kidney-shaking work in the crop fields six days a week, while nearly 2,000 nontrustee convicts from the bigger camps within the prison picked vegetables and cotton under the careful eyes of rifle-totting guards on horseback.

            “Dem Saints, theys ready this year, dog!”  Hog Head’s voice amplified over the conversations of other prisoners.  “Ya heard what that white boy said on the news?  My team, theys together.  All you Saint haters bring your smokes to Hog Head, ‘cause he’s putting down on every game.”  For his 18 years in prison for aggravated rape, driving his tractor and sports consumed Hog Head’s life.  Every season he bet packs of cigarettes on the Saints.  At the end of every season he was broke.

            Frenchy flicked his butt at the guard’s fence in front of him and pushed himself up from the coke crate.  He eased his weight onto his right side before taking a step.  The bullet he took in the hip while robbing his first bank in 1960 hurt him more now than when it happened.  “Son of a bitch cop couldn’t shoot straight enough to kill me and put me out of my misery,” he often recited.  He grabbed a small empty clothing cart and maneuvered it down a cement walkway, headed for Dormitory 3.

            His 1960 bank heist sent him to Raiford Prison in Florida for his first adult jolst at the age of 18.  The four years at Raiford started him on the road to the only successful skill he ever learned—professional convict.  After Raiford it was Holman, Alabama, Tucker, Arkansas, Parchman in Mississippi, Huntsville, Texas, and his final destination Louisiana’s infamous Angola to serve life-without-parole for a jewelry store heist in the Garden District of New Orleans (while on escape from Hunstville).  The prosecution had no problem citing Frenchy as a habitual offender and the judge had no problem giving him life.  “Mr. Mancini, you’re through,” said the judge in ending his lecture during the sentencing hearing.  Frenchy being Frenchy had to have the last word, “So was your momma when she had your dumpy-headed self,” and he grabbed his crouch as the guards yanked him out of the courtroom.     

            He parked the clothing cart in front of the dormitory and walked inside, where he found Whit hunkered over the edge of his bunk sucking air.  “Hey ya old fart, said Whit.  “Rough night?,” replied Frenchy.

            “Naw.  Slept like a baby in a bank vault.”  Frenchy knew Whit was lying like a dog, but didn’t press the issue.  “Your carriage waits, Princess, so get your sexy ass up and lets go.

            “Fuck you too early this morning,” Whit said and started one of his coughing fits.  Frenchy reached over and rubbed his back.  “Wow old fart, relax.  Be the Buddah.”  That only made it worse, with Whit laughing and coughing at the same time.  It took several minutes before the heavy heaves and cough subsided.  Having gained a little strength, Whit allowed Frenchy to help him across the dormitory and onto the cart.  His serious emphysema and weak heart begged for a wheelchair, but Whit refused.  He wanted to die without help.

            By the time they rolled into the clothing room Cupid had another pot of strong coffee brewing, and black market bacon inside the 15-year-old microwave that sparked every time in use.  “Happy, happy morning,” sing-songed Cupid.  “Bacon sandwiches and steaming coffee is on the menu.  And for you ladies it’s half price.”

            “Just make sure you put enough mayo on mine,” said Whit.  “Last time we had this crappy breakfast you almost choked me to death.”

            “Shut your pie hole and get in your chair,” countered Cupid.  Frenchy helped Whit out of the cart and into the ragged recliner.  The chair had been in the Captain’s office before it mysteriously disappeared two months ago and took on a rough reupholster job to change its appearance.   Every time the captain paid the three old farts a visit he commented, “Just like my ole chair.  If I ever catch the son of a bitches who stole it I’ll hang them by his heels from the razor wire.”  The three old farts always grumbled how their chair cost them an arm and a leg from an unnamed prisoner who picked it out of the prison dump.  A little game they played.  Captain Fontenot knew his missing chair the first time he saw it, and they knew he knew it.”

            Cupid distributed the bacon sandwiches and turned on the small portable fan, leveling it in Whit’s direction.  The heat was already close to unbearable at 8 in the morning.  Gonna be another hot one on the farm,” commented Cupid.  “I’d rather be fishing under a shade tree,” added Whit, who struggled with each small bite of his sandwich.  “I’d rather be drinking a cold brew in an air conditioned strip joint in Dallas,” said Frenchy.  They finished their breakfast in silence.

            At 69, Whit was the oldest of the three, but only by a couple years.  He also had the least criminal experience, with no prior brushes with the law before he was sent to prison 18 years ago for killing his cheating wife.  Before that he had been a full bird Colonel.  His terminal emphysema and bad ticker was a result of his hard drinking and chain smoking lifestyle in the Air Force.  He found Frenchy and Cupid here and they showed him the ropes of being a standup convict.  More important, they taught him how not to let his yearning for freedom drive him crazy.  Walk slow and drink a lot of water was their edict for doing time.

            Cupid was the trio’s true gangster, serving life for a murder he didn’t commit.  The cops hooked him up to get him off the streets once and for all.  Until he came to Angola for good in 1980, he was part of a loosely-fit criminal organization in North Louisiana that delved into gambling, enforcement, prostitution and gun smuggling.  He didn’t hate of the police for giving him a bum murder charge.  Just part of the outlaw game, he would say, and just deserts.  He had killed his share of like deviants over the years and either never got caught or beat the charge in court.  Only once he couldn’t finagle his way out of a criminal act—back in the mid-60s, when he used a baseball bat on a bar owner.  That put him in Angola for five years, in the days when Angola was rough and tumble and Sears Catalogues carried their weight in gold (prisoners would tape them to their chests when they slept to protect against middle of the night knife attacks).  Compared to that violent era, Angola is now a lamb.  Elderly prisoners make up half the prisoner population, due to life meaning life in Louisiana since 1972, and the young guns coming to Angola are crack heads who think this is just an extension of the projects they left.  So a balance of peace exists; one that is rarely thrown off kilter.

            A soft knock on the closed wooden window interrupted the reflective silence.  “Hey studs, open up.”

            The three old farts said in unison:  “Read the sign, asshole.”  Today is Tuesday.  No clothing handouts on Tuesday.  Leave your request in the box.  No bikini underwear in stock.

            “Fuck your sign.  And don’t be calling me that dirty word.  It’s Precious.”  The size of all three farts put together, Precious had not an ounce of fat on his well-chiseled body.  He also wore bikini underwear, tight shorts and low-cut tank tops.  “Come on, hurry up or I’m a gone pecan.”

            The three looked at each other and said, “Yeast!”  Cupid jumped from his chair to the window.  As he pushed the wood flat opened Precious slipped his hand down the front of his shorts and pulled a half-filled baggie from inside his flowery underwear.  He shoved it at Cupid as he looked nervously around the courtyard.  “I gotta go.  Pay me later.  Remember pink.  And it better be a thong and have a heart on the front like you promised, ‘cause it’s what my man wants.”  Precious’s man was Needle Dick Slim—6’ 2” and 135 pounds.  How Needle Dick could order and slap Precious around was just one of many mysteries of prison life.  “Yeah right,” said Cupid.  “I’ll bring them to the dorm tomorrow.”  And he closed the window.

            Turning around he held the bag of yeast in front of him like a diploma.  Frenchy got up, took the yeast and walked to the back room.  Seasoned convicts can get their hands on any anything from an x-rated video to an ounce of heroin, but yeast was one of the hardest contraband items to score.  It came from the kitchen where it was kept under lock and key and inventoried on a daily basis.  Security often overlooked a joint now and then, but when it came to making hooch they were serious.  A group of prisoners drunk on home brew always meant trouble.  Yet, for the most seasoned convicts, they always find a way.

            In the back room, where their small, rusted refrigerator sat among stacked boxes of state-issued clothing, Frenchy knelt down and lifted a floor board.  He tapped the yeast to the bottom of the board and snugged it back into place.  Reserve stock.  In the back corner of the room, under a barred window and behind a dilapidated shelf used to store rubber boots and brogans sat the covered bucket of fermenting wine.  Frenchy opened the sealed top, took a quick sniff and hurriedly closed it back.  Ready.  He then reached his hand into a size 13 rubber boot and pulled out a woman’s pink thong underwear, brought to him by a guard in exchange doing the guard’s application for divorce.  Tit for tat.

            Frenchy heard the front door open and stuffed the thong back into its hiding place.  Captain Fontenot walked in with his new Lieutenant trailing behind like a police dog.  “How ya old fart doin’ this morning?”

            “Like shit, and you?” answered Cupid. “Want some coffee, Cap?” asked Frenchy as he stepped from the back room.

            “Just had a cup.  Wanted to stop by to see how were doing, Whit.  How ya feeling?”

            “Okay,” wheezed Whit.  Captain Fontenot smiled, but lines of concern etched his face.  Cupid, let me see ya outside for a minute.”  The two walked out leaving the green Lieutenant to browse around the room.  He didn’t like what he saw.  And old color TV with rabbit ears, a deck of cards with poker chips and a shelf underneath the still smoking microwave.  “Ya’ll are laying out on this farm,” he said with stern sarcasm while bending over to look at a brand new VCR.

            “Laying out?” responded Frenchy as he moved across the room and into the Lieutenant’s face.  “Were in for life.  Gonna die in this stinking piss hole.  How the fuck are we laying out!?”  Frenchy’s abruptness caught the Lieutenant off guard.  He quickly regained his composure, moved closer to Frenchy with a scowl.  Captain Fontenot walked back in and saw the two squaring off.  “Let’s go Smith.  We need to make our rounds.  From now on stay out of here.  The clothing room is off limits to you.  These old convicts, they know how to do time and they don’t give us no trouble.  So we don’t give them none, understand?”  Without saying a word, Lieutenant Smith turned on his heels and walked out, tail between his legs.

            “He come from one of the non-trustee outercamps,” Fontenot told the trio.  “You know how they play it in those camps, everything by the book.  He don’t know no better about this camp, and I don’t expect he’ll make it here.  Fontenot knelt in front of Whit.  “You’re not look so good, my man.”  Whit struggled to hold off a coughing spell as he told the Captain, “I’m okay, really.  Fontenot stood up and headed to the door.  “If you need anything let me know.”

            “Three whores and a case of beer,” said Frenchy.  Fontenot smiled and shut the door.

            “What he want when he took you outside,” asked Frenchy.  Cupid looked at Whit.  “He wants to send you to the infirmary.  Says he’s worried about you.”  Whit’s eyes grew moist and big as silver dollars.  “No way!  I ain’t going to that butcher shop!  I don’t want to leave you guys and have to die alone in a locked room.”  His anxiety caused him to miss every other breath.  “Calm down ya old fart.  I talked him out of it.  Told him I’d let him know if you got any worse.  So just be sure to die before you get any worse.”  Whit chuckled with relief.

            The day drug on, like every day does in prison.  They tried to play three-handed poker, but Whit kept fading out, and sweat kept dripping on the cards.  So they turned on a baseball game.  Whit’s favorite team, Atlanta Braves, were playing.

            An hour before supper, just as everyone returned from their job assignments, all hell broke loose.  From inside the seclusion of the clothing room the three old farts were jarred by security radios blaring and hard shoes beating the pathway outside.  Before Frenchy and Cupid could get to their feet and race to the window, Knucklehead, the yard orderly, came crashing through the door.  “Bopeep  just took out Hog Head!  Busted his head wide open with a weight bar.  Blood and brains everywhere on the walk!  Hog Head laying dead as a doornail.

            “What happened, man?” asked Frenchy.

            “Heard they been beefing all day at the tractor shed over football,” said Knucklehead.  “Hog Head called Bopeep’s mom a grizzly old linebacker.  I heard Bopeep didn’t say nothin’ after that.  Just walked away.  Now this.  Snuck ole Hog Head good.”

            Cupid looked at Frenchy and Whit.  “Wow.”

            “That’s his issue,” said Frenchy.  “You don’t beef with a psycho like Bopeep, then go about your business like nothing’ happened.  I though Hog Head had more sense.”

            “Later,” said Knucklehead.  “I gotta get back over there.  Gotta clean up the mess.”  Knucklehead seemed excited about that.  Frenchy and Cupid opened the window.  Across the courtyard Bopeep wore handcuffs and leg shackles as three guards led by Lieutenant Smith shuffled him into a prison SUV.  The sound of the prison ambulance screeched in the distance.  “Wow,” repeated Cupid.  “Thought he was smarter than that,” repeated Frenchy.  Whit was struggling to get out of the chair and to the window, but couldn’t make it.  Frenchy and Cupid helped him over.  “I’m glad I’m not going out like that,” Whit said.

            Two hours later all was quiet in the camp.  Hog Head’s body had been hauled away to the prison’s small morgue.  Bopeep went to a lockdown cell where he would stay for  at least a couple decades.  Knucklehead had cleaned up the blood and grey matter on the walk.  Shit happens in prison, then it’s over and life moves on.

            The sun set, making way for a harvest moon to rise over the wheat fields.  Whit was in his chair half asleep and laboring with every breath.  His thoughts were consumed with anxiety over the possibility of being transferred to the infirmary.  Cupid and Frenchy were looking at Whit, willing him to breath.  In the background the TV was on AMC, showing, “The Great Escape.”  “Too much excitement for me today,” said Cupid.  “Yep, me too.  I think we need something to calm our nerves,” grinned Frenchy.  Whit looked up smiling.  Frenchy got up and walked to the back.  Cupid followed with three empty water bottles.

            A few minutes later they pulled their folding chairs around Whit and handed him a half-full bottle of hooch.  “To three old farts,” said Frenchy.  “To three old farts,” agreed Cupid.  They all took a swig.  Whit’s weak hand shook as he took a gulp.  The home brew trickled down the corners of his mouth.  “Frenchy my man, you’ve out done yourself this time,” Cupid said as he readied himself for another swig.  “I believe you’re right.  I have outdone myself.  What ya say Whit?  Does it hit the spot, or does it hit the spot?”

            “Mighty good,” wheezed Whit.  “A drink with friends.”  He lifted his bottle for another drink, but before it reached his lips is slipped from his hand.  Frenchy quickly bent over to pick it up from the floor before much spilled.  “Ain’t nothing but a thing, ya old fart.  You didn’t lose any.”  Whit’s hand brushed the top of Frenchy’s head as it swung loose over the side of the recliner.  Rising, Frenchy noticed Cupid’s stunned look.  He turned to Whit, whose head lolled to the left side and he eyes  drooped with a blank stare.  “I think he just died” said Cupid.  Frenchy set the two bottles of home brew on the floor and reached the back of his hand to Whit’s neck.  “Whit?  Whit?”  No answer, and no chest movement.  Whit was indeed dead.  The two sat there of several minutes staring at their friend.

            Cupid broke he silence.  “Is that it?  Just like that?”

            “I guess so,” said Frenchy.  “The old fart is free, and he died the way he wanted to—with us, on his terms.”  Cupid nodded, bowed his head and said, “We need to tell someone.  I mean, we need to tell a guard.”

            “Later,” said Frenchy.  “He’s not going anywhere.”  For the next hour , with Whit dead in his chair, Frenchy and Cupid went back and forth to the bucket of hooch.  Somehow they ended up on the back porch, arms around one another’s shoulders, facing the wheat field shinning under a full moon.  “We still got those wire cutters underneath the floorboard?” asked Frenchy.  Cupid turned and walked in to get them.

            Taking the wire cutters, Frenchy asked, “You coming?”  Naw, Wheat fucks up my sinus.  You go, old fart.  Have fun.”

            Frenchy walked unsteadily to the fence and cut a hole at the bottom.  With his bad hip and drunken state,  it took him a while to shimmy through the hole, but once on the other side he shed his clothes, leaving on his socks and brogans.  Then he staggered across the 100-yard gravel perimeter between the camp and wheat fields.

            The guard in the tower at the back corner of the camp spotted Frenchy with the searchlight and sounded the alarm.  Frenchy walked faster, finally reaching the edge of the wheat field, where he ducked in and spun around while looking up at the shinning moon.  He sucked in the smell of wheat, of freedom, tasting it with every fiber of his body.

            Cupid stood on the back porch, tears running down his cheeks, listening to his friend holler with joy.

            Flashlights bounced in the night as a dozen guards ran to the edge of the field.  Leading the chase team was Lieutenant Smith, who volunteered to work overtime.  Smith has his rifle in hand.  “It’s only Frenchy,” hollered a longtime guard.  “He must be drunk or something.  He ain’t no problem.  I’ll get him.”  Before the guard stepped into the wheat field, a rifle shot echoed through the night.

            Feeling empty and alone, Cupid shut the back door and walked over to Whit to tell him what happened.


“Geezer in the Hole”: The Reality of Aging Behind Bars

Over the past few years there has been a growing interest in the increasing numbers of older prisoners. At times this interest has been accompanied by some piddling gestures to alleviate their miserable situation–for example, theoretically granting them leave to die “in the free world,” or perhaps showing sympathy for granny having to climb up three tiers of bunks to get a night’s sleep, or gramps asking for a cane (denied because it is a possible weapon) so he can get to the toilet without crawling.

Nonetheless, the dominant view from the corrections industry and most of the public is that these people did the crimes and now they have to do the time–even if the time reflects absurdly the long sentences instituted in the 1980s and 90s, and creates a new cohort of septuagenarian prisoners. In fact, most of the new interest in aging inmates actually has to do with money. According to a recent AP article:

The ACLU estimates that it costs about $72,000 to house an elderly inmate for a year, compared to $24,000 for a younger prisoner.The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the number of men and women in state and federal prisons age 55 and older grew 76 percent between 1999 and 2008, the latest year available, from 43,300 to 76,400. The growth of the entire prison population grew only 18 percent in that period.

“We’re reaping the fruits of bad public policy like Three Strikes laws and other mandatory minimum sentencing laws,” said David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C. “One in 11 prisoners is serving a life sentence.”

With prison costs escalating and states overwhelmed with deficits, letting granny and gramps out of the clink suddenly doesn’t sound so bad to some state officials. Old prisoners are expensive, and if we must take care of them, then why should local and state government’s foot the bill. Better to let the federal government pay instead, through Medicare and Medicaid. The leading predictor of criminal behavior is age (young), so there’s little risk involved in letting the geezers go; all that’s keeping most of them behind bars in the nation’s insatiable taste for punishment.

With all this in mind, I am reprinting an article that just appeared on Solitary Watch, another blog where I am editor along with Jean Casella. It is the story of Robert Platshorn, leader of  the “Black Tuna Gang” of marijuana smugglers in the late 1970s, an experience described in his book The Black Tuna Diaries. In 1980, he received what was then an unprecedented sentence of 64 years in federal prison. 

When Platshorn was released on parole in 2008 at the age of 65, he was the longest-serving non-violent marijuana offender in America. But as he wrote in a blog post for High Times earlier this year, that distinction ”won’t be mine for long. Many sentenced after me will soon be able to claim my title. They are serving LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE and will never get to spend another minute as a free man.” When Platshorn was convicted, he writes, “no one received a life sentence for marijuana. That changed in the early 80′s as Reagan stepped up this insane failure of a drug war.” According to Platshorn, several other non-violent marijuana offenders, including  Billy Deckle, are now in their sixties and seventies, and will likely never be released.

Here is what they have to look forward to: Surviving day to day in an environment so dangerous that a slip of the tongue often ends in death. Since the elimination of parole, federal prisons are populated mainly by young, uneducated, aggressive inmates serving absurdly long sentences. They have little hope and nothing to lose. Violence has become endemic in a system that has little or no reward for good behavior. Prison gangs find older non-violent inmates easy prey.

Inadequate medical care. It costs the taxpayers billions to provide even minimal health care for older inmates. Yet these are the people least likely to commit a crime after release. An older marijuana offender serving a long sentence is likely to die in prison for lack of medical care…

An extremely unhealthy diet. It becomes an obsession, trying find enough decent food to maintain good health. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s no longer possible. When I entered prison in 1979, the budget to feed an inmate for three meals a day was $2.62. When I left prison in 2008 it had shrunk to $2.25…This has to pay, not only for food, it has to cover repairs and replacements for kitchen equipment, civilian salaries, and eating utensils…You don’t have to be an economist to figure out, that since Bush decimated the prison food budget, the cost of inmate medical care has skyrocketed. Especially for older inmates, many of whom require a special or restricted diet…Now, the Bureau [of Prisons] will say that they provide special diets for those who require them. And it’s true. Sort of! Those diet trays usually contain so little edible food that the starving sick geezer ends up eating a piece of deep fried breaded sewer trout or a hunk of fried breaded mystery meat, just to stave off the terrible never ending hunger pangs. The results, a sick geezer who now needs expensive medications and has little or no chance of surviving a long sentence. Most of those geezers would pose no threat to society if released. It’s even worse when the geezer is serving forever for marijuana, a harmless substance, and an effective medication that is now legal in many states. How would you feel if that old pot smuggler was your Uncle Billy?

Geezer in the hole! “The Hole”! Segregation!…The Federal Bureau of Prisons thinks it sounds better if they call it the SHU (Special Housing Unit). Take my word for it, it ain’t special in any way you’d like to experience. During my almost 30 years in 11 different federal prisons, about 3 ½ years were spent in segregation. They got it right in the old movies, “the hole”. Now you might ask, why would a nice non-violent old dude wind up in the hole? Lots of reason! Someone “drops a note” saying the old dude’s life is in danger. Result many months in the hole. He gets in a fight. Doesn’t matter if it’s self-defense. Into the hole! Uncle Billy gets caught coming out of the chow hall with an apple or a cookie in his pocket. The hole! The old pot smuggler has been forced to work in the prison factory because he owes a fine. A tool disappears from his work area. Everyone who works in that area is tossed in the hole. And so on and so on. Now what happens is: he has to eat whatever shows up on the meager tray that comes through the slot, or starve. Mostly he eats all the starchy crap because he’s been flat on his back all day and night, and he’s bored to death. Meals are the only break he looks forward to. Each time he leaves his cell his hands are cuffed behind his back. This is especially painful for an older inmate. He has to be cuffed while he crouches backwards with his hands pushed out through the lower food slot. This usually means Uncle Billy will forgo his three weekly showers and exercise periods. It’s no big deal when your young and supple, but for a geezer it’s a different story. The only way I can express it is, if you are over fifty, spend 90 days in the hole and you come out two years older. Fatter, slower, more depressed, and less likely to recover physically or mentally.

Its time for all the Uncle Billys to go home…

Saying Goodbye to Jenny, a Beloved Border Collie

My dog Jenny came to the end of the line last week. She was over 15, deaf, and scarcely able to move, but never lost her dignity in any respect; she was a model of how to grow old with grace. Like every good Border collie she was always on the job, even as she gave in to the tides of age, still keeping constant  look out over her people. When she couldn’t move, she barked to be  moved into a position where she could survey her charges.  Towards the end one friend, a Buddhist nun, came to say goodbye. Bending over Jenny, she said in a matter-of-fact way, “Goodbye, Jenny. Come back good.” We know she will.

Later a neighbor stopped by to leave a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s famous homage to his dog Blemie, “The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog.”  Jenny, I know, would have liked these sentiments. So in her honor, I will quote a bit of it:

…I ask my Master and Mistress to remember me always, but not to grieve for me too long. In my life I have tried to be a comfort to them in time of sorrow, and a reason for added joy in their happiness…I feel life is taunting me with having over-lingered my welcome. It is time I said good-bye, before I become too sick a burden on myself and on those who love me. It will be sorrow to leave them, but not a sorrow to die. Dogs do not fear death as men do. We accept it as part of life, not as something alien and terrible which destroys life…

One last request I earnestly make. I have heard my Mistress say, “When Blemie dies we must never have another dog. I love him so much I could never love another one.” Now I would ask her, for love of me, to have another. It would be a poor tribute to my memory never to have a dog again. What I would like to feel is that, having once had me in the family, now she cannot live without a dog! I have never had a narrow jealous spirit. I have always held that most dogs are good (and one cat, the black one I have permitted to share the living room rug during the evenings, whose affection I have tolerated in a kindly spirit, and in rare sentimental moods, even reciprocated a trifle)…

One last word of farewell, Dear Master and Mistress. Whenever you visit my grave, say to yourselves with regret but also with happiness in your hearts at the remembrance of my long happy life with you: “Here lies one who loved us and whom we loved.” No matter how deep my sleep I shall hear you, and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from wagging a grateful tail.

Quadriplegics and Geezers Deemed Too Dangerous to Release from Prison

A quadriplegic could be a threat to public safety if release from prison. At least, that’s what the California Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) concluded when a prisoner requested compassionate release.

Steven Martinez, convicted of several violent felonies, had served three years of a 157-year sentence when he was stabbed by another inmate. His spinal cord was severed, and he was permanently paralyzed from the neck down. Despite his physical condition, the Parole Board denied his request– citing his violent past and verbal threats he had made since he was rendered quadriplegic–and said that he must remain incarcerated indefinitely.

According to the blog Lowering the Bar (which specializes in reporting on legal absurdities) this week a California state Court of Appeals more or less agreed with the Parole Board. In Martinez v. Board of Parole Hearings, the Appeals Court decided that the case should be “returned to BPH because it did not explicitly articulate” the facts on which the Board had based its decision. Yet the Court found that such a threat was “conceivable.”

On Legal Blog Watch, Bruce Carton writes about the Court’s opinion, in which a dissenting judge faces off against the majority over what Carton dubs “the ‘dangerous quadriplegic’ doctrine.”

The majority opinion cited four cases to show that “quadriplegics can commit violent crimes.” Among these  was one case where “a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair thought his bride of two weeks was cheating on him and killed her by firing a pistol using a string in his mouth.”

The dissenting judge responded that “with the help of a good Internet search engine, you can prove anything, including that pigs can fly.” He then proceeded to cite several stories in which they did just that (with the help of a trampoline or an airplane–but still). The judge concluded:

[T]he majority’s citation of these quadriplegic crime stories actually supports my argument. Thus the majority’s four accounts are drawn from the entire country and span a period of 38 years–from 1972 to the present. I am sure that if there were more stories of this ilk, the majority would have found them.

Four stories in the country in 38 years is darn few. Indeed, the stories are written and reported because the commission of serious crimes by quadriplegics is so rare and bizarre that they are newsworthy. Thus I am willing to take the risk that petitioner Martinez will fire a pistol with a string in his mouth. Indeed, given the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Martinez is costing the State each year, it is a risk that we all must take.

California’s compassionate release program was in large part designed to save money, in a cash-strapped state that has the nation’s largest population of prisoners, and spends $8 billion a year to incarcerate them. But the Parole Board’s response–and the Court’s–show why even crippling state budget crises do not necessarily lead to more sensible corrections policies.

The same is true when it comes to the growing numbers of old inmates languishing in U.S. prisons due to longer sentences and harsher parole policies. Jonathan Turley, who founded the Project for Older Prisoners, has written that in assessing risk factors for parole or early release, “the most reliable is age. As a general rule, people become less dangerous as they age. In males, the greatest drop in recidivism occurs around age 30 and tends to continue to fall.” At the same time, “because of maintenance and medical costs, the average cost of an older prisoner is two to three times that of a younger prisoner.”

A report on the subject released earlier this week by the Vera Institute of Justice recommends more use of early release for older prisoners who present a low risk to public safety. But if a quadriplegic is deemed dangerous, can anyone ever be “low risk”? According to an article about the Vera study on The Crime Report:

At the end of 2009, 15 states and the District of Columbia had provisions for geriatric release, but jurisdictions rarely use them. Four factors help explain the difference between the stated intent and the actual impact of geriatric release laws: political considerations and public opinion; narrow eligibility criteria; procedures that discourage inmates from applying for release; and complicated and lengthy referral and review processes.

Last year, I wrote a two-part article for The Crime Report about the “Graying of America’s Prisons,” citing many cases in which states denied early release to elderly prisoners–even ones who showed ample evidence of rehabilitation. (You can read it here and here.) In many cases, these same inmates would have been out long ago had their crimes preceded the draconian sentencing boom of the last 30 years.

The fact that so many states refuse to seriously consider releasing prisoners who are rendered virtually harmless by age, sickness, or disability suggests that our prison policies have less to do with protecting public safety, and more to do with the politics of punishment and the psychology of retribution.


Profs to Design “Toolkit” to Help Old People Die Right in Prison

Over the last few months I have been posting articles on the graying of the U.S. prison population. Beyond the humanitarian implications, this is a cause of growing concern because of inflating costs due to treating people with arthritis, cancer, hip and knee replacement and so on behind bars. Older people fall more often, have trouble climbing into bunk beds because of arthritis, and suffer from depression and dementia. Unlike younger prisoners, they tend to be a fairly docile lot, and are more often the victim than the aggressor in prison assaults. They are obvious candidates for early release as prisons are eyed as targets for cuts in cash-strapped state budgets.

For years prison rights organizations and families have sought to persuade states and the federal government to free elderly  terminally ill inmates into the care of family or friends. But prisons and politicians have generally deemed such compassionate release programs too “high risk” because of the possible security threat to the general populace–in other words, they worry grandpa might get out and go berserk, and they’d be left holding the bag if he committed a new crime.

Places like Angola, the giant Louisiana state prison where most inmates have such long sentences that they are destined to die inside, have dealt with this situation by setting up their own hospices. Now, Penn State has received a $1.27 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research to develop what Susan Loeb, an assistant professor, described to the student newspaper the Daily Collegian as a “comprehensive toolkit of tailored resources for end-of-life care in prisons.” The article continues:

Leaders of the program plan to apply study findings at six different prisons state-wide in an attempt to improve care for inmates reaching the end of their lives, wrote Loeb, the principal investigator for the study.

“Since prisons are among the most restrictive, most complex organizations — prisons are the best context for this study,” Loeb wrote. “Our hope is that findings will benefit not only dying inmates but also others who spend their final days in a complex organization.”

Though the study is still in the early stages, researchers are quickly learning, said Christopher Hollenbeak, associate professor of surgery and health evaluation sciences and an investigator on the study. “The real goal of it is to come up with a tool in prisons to improve the quality-of-life care,” Hollenbeak said. “We want to provide a toolkit that would be cost-effective as well.” Current end-of-life prison programs only offer limited low-cost medications. One proposed change is the “buddy system,” where healthy inmates are paired with a terminally ill inmate to help look out for them, Hollenbeak said.

I suppose it’s a worthy effort, given the current situation. But none of it would be necessary if American society could get over its desire for punishment and revenge just enough to let these inmates die in the free world.

Old Dogs, New Gifts

Clyde, age 8

Readers of Unsilent Generation know that I have a soft spot for old dogs, including but not limited to my own 15-year-old, Jenny. Every old dog deserves a safe home, a warm spot to lie in, and plenty of love and attention–in other words, pretty much the same things that old people need. But old dogs who end up homeless have an even harder time than other dogs, since they are often passed over for adoption; in some shelters, they are euthanized as soon as they arrive unless someone intervenes. 

Dina, age 7

 While there are hundreds of animal welfare organizations and rescue groups around the country, only a handful of groups have devoted themselves specifically to the needs of older dogs. As far as I can tell, all of them are staffed entirely by volunteers and survive on a shoestring, depending on small donations from ordinary people. If you love old dogs, too, you might want to keep this in mind if you’re planning on making some charitable contributions before the end of the year. 

MacGregor, age 13

One group is the Sanctuary for Senior Dogs in Ohio, which rescues old dogs from shelters, finds adoptive homes, and keeps the ones they can’t place. They also train therapy dogs that visit old people. Last year a friend gave me their annual calendar, called Graying Muzzles: A Celebration of Old Dogs, with a canine geezer for every month of the year. These make great holiday gifts and support the Sanctuary’s work. (You can also enter your old dog in their photo contest for next year.) Or you can sponsor one of their permanent residents, like the ones pictured in this post, or just make a donation


Other old dogs around the country who need adoption or foster homes, and organizations that rescue and support aging dogs, can be found at the Senior Dogs Project, which serves as a kind of information clearinghouse on old dogs. 

“Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” –Pearl S. Buck 

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” –Mahatma Gandhi 

Holiday Gifts from Our Sponsors

In preparation for the holidays, Unsilent Generation would like to thank our advertisers for their support, and let readers know about some wonderful gifts they’re offering. 

Washington’s famous Tabard Inn is a family-owned inn and restaurant made up of several Victorian row houses, named for the hostelry in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Tabard offers gift certificates for brunch, lunch, dinner, overnight stays, and any combination–so they make a perfect gift for District-dwellers and visitors alike. Or you can treat yourself to their special Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve dinner, or weekend brunch. Take a tour and read reviews here, and then visit this link for more information on gift certificates.

In a different vein, Route 11 has holiday tins of their potato chips, which come in many different flavors, all hand-cooked at their Virginia factory (which you can visit if you like to watch potato chips frying). These are great gifts for office parties, business associates, or people you’ll be visiting–infinitely better than than those tins of crappy popcorn. Click here for a complete selection.