Oklahoma manages elderly inmates amid prison overcrowding
LEXINGTON, Okla. (AP) — When Donald Vaughan went to prison for murder, he was 19 years old. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Marilyn Monroe was a star and this newspaper cost five cents.
Fifty-eight years later, Vaughan is still there. He has the lowest inmate number in Oklahoma, along with a growing litany of ailments that could cost taxpayers untold thousands of dollars.
“We’re too old to continue committing crimes, nor would we want to,” he said of himself and other inmates his age. “I say, give us the chance to prove the negative opinions of ex-convicts wrong.”
There are 350 inmates in Oklahoma state prisons that are 70 years old or older, according to Department of Corrections records, and 21 that are at least 80 years old.
None are older than Arlin Mauer and he knows it. He is 87, expects to be incarcerated for another four years and expects his time left on Earth is less than that. His medical needs are many, he said. He has lived this long thanks to the work of a little-known pawn within the prison system: a health care orderly.
The Oklahoman spoke with more than a dozen elderly inmates, along with health care orderlies, experts and state officials. They describe a small segment of the state’s prison population that is infirm, rendering them wholly unable to commit crimes and, in some cases, unaware they ever did so. They wonder why, in a state with some of the nation’s worst prison overcrowding, so many are still there.
Former lawyer Carroll Gregg is 84 years old. He weighs 119 pounds “on a good day,” according to a fellow inmate who cares for him. Beaten down by dementia, diabetes, COPD and undernourishment, he cannot feed himself or walk on his own or write. He doesn’t know where he is (Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington), how long he’s been there (28 years) or why (his molestation of a young girl).
Of Oklahoma’s inmates, 244 require a wheelchair, according to state records; another 400 use canes, crutches and walkers. In one 32-inmate pod at Joseph Harp Correctional, a dozen of the inmates must use wheelchairs, according to a person inside the facility. There are two who are paralyzed, one with double amputations, three men each with one leg and one with a single arm.
“The majority of them are harmless for the simple fact they are invalid,” said a health care orderly, who spoke on conditions of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Most need assistance to attend church.”
Oklahoma pays 157 inmates to act as health care orderlies for other inmates, serving as backup to the prisons’ nursing staffs. It’s a practice that dates back 30 years. Orderlies share cells with the inmates they care for, providing round-the-clock care in some cases. One orderly said he is paid $22.65 per month, considerably more than most prison jobs, and hopes to earn brownie points toward parole.
“It is not widespread, but many state agencies allow inmates to assist other inmates with medical problems,” said Dr. Keith Ivens, president of the American College of Correctional Physicians. A hallmark example is in one of America’s most notorious prisons: the hospice program at Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola.
Joseph Harp Correctional, about 45 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, was expanded in 1998. Under state law, the expansion was set aside for inmates who are elderly, physically disabled and infirm. Inmates joke that the prison’s J Unit is where you’re sent to die, a more dooming place than the death row at McAlester.
For Earl Cooper, it will likely be the last place he sees. He’s been in prison since 1973. He’s 86 years old, diabetic and blind in one eye. He has seen many men die here. A parole board approved his release in 2014 but Gov. Mary Fallin denied it.
This April, Fallin signed into law House Bill 2286 after it was overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature. When it takes effect Nov. 1, it will allow geriatric inmates to apply for parole at age 60 if they have served at least half their sentence.
“If we can show an elderly, aging or infirm inmate is no longer a threat to public safety, then we’re supportive of efforts to expedite his or her return to the community,” said Matt Elliott, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Parole must still be recommended by the Pardon and Parole Board and approved by the governor. In the first half of 2018, the board recommended releasing nine of the 10 inmates who had requested medical parole, according to their records. Of the nine recommended for release, Fallin paroled three.
“As always, I will review each parole on a case-by-case basis, but this new law certainly brings a new factor when considering paroles,” the governor said in a recent statement.
Statistics on Oklahoma’s elderly prison population are astounding. In 1980, the state had 85 inmates over the age of 50. By 2017, there were 5,214. That comes at a cost to taxpayers: Health care expenses for Oklahoma inmates age 55 to 64 are more than twice as high as those for inmates between the ages of 19 to 44, according to a state study.
“The state is responsible for virtually all the medical costs,” Ivens said. “In the community, costs are shared with private insurance, federal Medicare/Medicaid funds, co-pays, and out-of-pocket payments by the patients.”
Those costs continue to rise as inmates become elderly. Oklahoma taxpayers spend more than twice as much money on medical expenses for 15 octogenarian inmates than they do for 303 inmates in their 70s, according to legislative researchers.
“People remain incarcerated because we’re just very angry about the crime that they committed, typically, but that anger comes at a really big cost, financially,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, which advocates for reduced prison populations.
“Spending money on incarcerating someone into their old age and caring for them behind bars means that we have less money to spend on much more effective crime control policies.”
Releasing geriatric inmates is not without its risks. Bobby Otto Powers, 83, was granted a medical commutation in 2010, five years after he was sentenced to 60 years in prison for child molestation. In February, he was charged with three felony counts of sexual battery for allegedly groping an Oklahoma City erotic shop employee. He has pleaded not guilty and the case is pending in county court.
Walk into your neighborhood barbershop or pub or senior center and, chances are, there’s an elderly gentlemen somewhere nearby decrying the evaporation of respect in younger generations. You will also hear it in the halls of Joseph Harp Correctional. Criminals today don’t have class, the old-timers said.
“The inmates of today are disrespectful and cowardly,” said Vaughan, Oklahoma’s longest-serving inmate. “There was once an honor and mutual respect between convicts — and between convicts and guards.”
Ronnie Gibson is 62 years old and has been in prison since a manslaughter charge sent him there at the age of 19. Youngsters these days lack the chivalry of their criminal forebears, he said, making them a danger to geriatric inmates.
“The gang members, who are younger and have little respect, have a tendency to prey on the weak and older men. That has become a problem,” Gibson said.
Crime is a young man’s game, experts said, with men in their teens and twenties responsible for much of it. Crime rates drop dramatically as men get older but the tough-on-crime legislation of the late 20th century has resulted in far longer sentences, leading to a spike in the number of inmates growing old, and dying, in prison.
Ask around Joseph Harp Correctional and you will hear of a rare breed — some say they’re a myth — of elderly inmate: Those who do not want to leave prison.
“We do have a lot that do not wish to be released,” said Billy Woolsey, who is 77 years old and has served 30 years in prison. “They have nothing out there.”
“Many of the elderly believe they have nothing to look forward to upon release,” said Mauer, the state’s oldest inmate. “So, a lot choose to just stay here.”
Most, however, are itching to leave. Their only option is parole.
Will Hamblin, 74, is a self-described “modern-day outlaw” who dreams of the day when he will fall to his knees and kiss the earth outside prison. Silas Jones, an 83-year-old inmate who has been in prison since the Jimmy Carter administration, said he would like to work when he leaves prison, rebuilding his life at its latest stage.
“And go fishing,” he added with a smile.
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com