Tag Archives: older prisoners

“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…

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.

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New Site: Solitary Watch

Readers of Unsilent Generation will know that I’ve written before on prison reform issues, aging behind bars, and the case of the Angola 3, which involves men who have spent decades in solitary confinement. I’ve now launched a new web site, in collaboration with writer and editor Jean Casella, called Solitary Watch News.

Solitary Watch News site is part of an emerging project called Solitary Watch, which will serve as the first centralized source of information on solitary confinement in the United States. The full Solitary Watch web site–which will be hosted by the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse (VC3), a clinical program of the Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia directed by veteran death penalty attorney David Bruck–will be launched in the spring of 2010.

Why Solitary Watch?

Many Americans have recoiled from the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and polls show that a clear majority oppose the use of torture under any circumstances, even on foreign terrorism suspects. Yet conditions of confinement in U.S. prisons and jails that transgress the boundaries of humane treatment have produced little outcry.  

The use of solitary confinement in the United States provides the clearest example of this situtation.  Solitary confinement has grown dramatically in the past two decades. Today, at least 25,000 prisoners are being held in long-term lockdown in the nation’s ”supermax” facilities; some 50,000 to 80,000 more are held in isolation in “administrative segregation” or “special housing” units at other facilities. In other words, on any given day, as many as 100,000 people are living in solitary confinement in America’s prisons. This widespread practice has received scant media attention, and has yet to find a place in the public discourse or on political platforms.

Solitary Watch is conceived as an innovative public web site aimed at bringing this issue out of the shadows and into the light of the public square. The mission of Solitary Watch is to provide the public—as well as practicing attorneys, legal scholars, law enforcement and corrections officers, policymakers, educators, advocates, and prisoners–with the first comprehensive source of information on solitary confinement in the United States. Combining a database compiled through state-by-state research with background, analysis, and breaking news, the site will serve as an information clearinghouse, educational resource, and online community.

Why now?

This project is being launched at a pivotal moment, coinciding with several important developments in U.S. criminal justice. As Americans’ support for executions wanes in the wake of numerous exonerations and excessive costs, the alternative punishment of choice seems to be long-term solitary confinement, whether on prison death rows or in supermax lockdown units. Solitary confinement also awaits accused and convicted terrorists as they are transferred onto American soil from Guantanamo and elsewhere. Finally, in the absence of appropriate medical care, solitary confinement has increasingly been used as a way to control and warehouse mentally ill prisoners. As these trends continue, there will be an increasing need for a comprehensive, reliable source of information on this practice, and on the many practical, legal, and ethical questions it raises.

I hope you will visit the site and subscribe to Solitary Watch News at http://solitarywatch.wordpress.com/.

Old Prisoners Denied Their Social Security

AGING BEHIND BARS SERIES

From time to time, I’ve written about the growing numbers of older prisoners now filling up the country’s prisons and jails, in a series of posts called Aging Behind Bars. Many of these prisoners receive inadquate health care and are subject to special forms of cruel and inhuman punishment that have to do with age–i.e. requiring people with bad arthritis to climb to the upper bunk to sleep, or making it next to impossible for inmates in wheelchairs to access parts of prisons available to younger people, even including something as simple as handicapped showers. Among the worst incidents described to me by a medical consultant were ill women forced to get out of bed at 3 am,then stand in lines to obtain medicine in one Alabama women’s prison.

Older prisoners are also often denied the Social Security they earned for years before being convicted of a crime. Lois Ahrens, who runs the indispenable Real Cost of Prisons Project, alerted me to the situation of David Hinman, a prisoner in Iowa. Now 65, he contributed to Social Security for years while he was in the “free-world.” He is not eligible for parole for a number years. Hinman writes:

Currently the government will not pay people in prison social security. I am speaking about paying social security to those who paid into the fund. Payment is based on what they paid in. Even though I am now 65 and paid into the fund, since I am in prison I am not allowed to collect unless I am released from prison. By not paying inmates the social security to which they are entitled, I believe this is in some manner, theft.

My question to readers is: should prison inmates who paid into social security and reached 65 be allowed to collected social security while incarcerated or not.

(You can write to David Hinman, #25374, Anamosa State Penitentiary, 406 North High Street, P.O. Box 10, Anamosa, IA 52205-0010.)

Asked about this situation, Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, the excellent magazine which tracks prison issues, wrote me:

Part of the problem I have with this is that someone can work their whole life, pay into Social Security, commit a crime at a later age, and go to prison for the rest of their life and never see a penny of the money they paid into SS. The lie used to justify this is prisoners have no need for money but that is not true. I think it is a backdoor way to trim the SS rolls. I think this is the exception. To put it into context, retirees can get their pensions in prison, veterans can get their VA benefits in prison. It follows that if you earn something you are entitled to it. It is not a freebie the government can take away because it doesn’t like you and that is exactly what they do here.

Wright attached an article from a 1998 isssue of Prison Legal News, describing a federal court decision on the subject, that sets the situation into the bleakest of terms.

The court of appeals for the Ninth circuit held that a statute denying Social Security benefits to prisoners is constitutional. Robert Butler is a 77 year old Nevada state prisoner. Butler was granted social security retirement benefits in 1983. He was later incarcerated and the Social Security Administration (SSA) determined he was not entitled to benefits while he was incarcerated pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 402(X). An administrative law judge affirmed the SSA’s decision. Butler filed suit in federal court and it was dismissed for failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The court of appeals affirmed. The appeals court noted that every court to consider the constitutionality of 42 U.S.C. § 402(X), this includes the Second, Fourth, Eighth, Tenth and Eleventh circuits, had upheld the law. Congress has wide discretion in administering welfare resources. The court held that § 402(X)’s ban on social security benefits to prisoners does not violate constitutional guarantees to due process, equal protection and protection against ex post facto laws and bills of attainder. The court also held that Butler was provided with ample due process before his benefits were terminated because he participated in the SSA hearing by telephone. Since the statute leaves no room for agency discretion and the only fact issue was whether or not Butler was a felon doing time in prison, the telephone hearing was sufficient to safeguard Butler’s due process interest in his social security benefits. See: Butler v. Apfel , 144 F.3d 622 (9th Cir. 1998).