Yet as state prisons go, the California Institution for Women in Corona is considered a pretty place, almost as inviting as a suburban college campus. Sometimes there's a salad bar at dinner. Still, no one really wants to live here. And, more emphatically, no one wants to die here.
Older prisoners —A June 26 Los Angeles Times Magazine article about the increasing number of elderly prisoners in California prisons incorrectly stated that former Gov. Gray Davis said that murderers would leave prison during his term only "in a pine box." Although others have characterized his policy in this way, Davis did not actually make this remark. In addition, the article incorrectly stated that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger "is on exactly the same page" as Davis when it comes to releasing murderers. The governor, in fact, has granted parole to 84 convicted murderers whose sentences made them eligible for release, whereas Davis allowed five to be paroled. Also, the article incorrectly referred to the location of the California Institution for Women. It is in Chino, not Corona.
FOR THE RECORD: Elderly prisoners — A June 26 Los Angeles Times Magazine article about the increasing number of elderly prisoners in California said the state's three-strikes law mandates life sentences without parole for certain repeat felons. In fact, on a third-strike felony sentence of at least 25 years to life, the offender is eligible for parole after serving at least 80% of the sentence. Also, the article gave the wrong first name for a prisoner at the California Medical Facility. He is Clyde Hoffman, not Claude.
FOR THE RECORD:
Elderly prisoners —A correction Saturday for a June 26 Los Angeles Times Magazine article about the increasing number of elderly prisoners in California said that on a third-strike felony sentence of at least 25 years to life, the offender is eligible for parole after serving at least 80% of the sentence. In fact, on a third-strike sentence of 25 years to life, the offender is eligible for parole after serving the minimum sentence of 25 years.
It's still dark when inmate No. 41465 wakes up to begin her day. The shrunken 82-year-old changes from her pajamas and pink house coat into jeans and a denim shirt labeled California Prisoner and begins her drill: breakfast at 6, sack lunch pickup at 6:30, infirmary at 7, where she acquires an ankle chain, belly chains and handcuffs. She then hobbles to a van for the 40-minute ride to Riverside Hospital for dialysis beginning at 8. Helen Loheac suffers from chronic renal failure, a condition that she figures costs the state $436,000 a year, not counting the two $24.75-an-hour armed corrections officers who guard her, all 5 feet and 90 pounds, for up to eight hours a day three times a week.
The financial toll of incarcerating senior citizens nationwide is staggering. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, medications and therapies, often for chronic or terminal conditions, compound the $30,929 annual average tab for housing a young, robust prisoner.
Penitentiary conditions accelerate aging, adding physiological years to the lives of men and women who in many cases compromised their health before getting arrested. They tend to get sicker than non-inmates with the same illnesses, in part because diagnosis and treatment arrive late. They're particularly vulnerable to diabetes, heart disease and hepatitis.
California spends two to three times more a year housing inmates over the age of 55, of which there are 6,400 currently incarcerated in state facilities, according to the Department of Corrections. A state Legislative Analysts Office study projects that the number of inmates over 60 could hit 30,200 by 2022, costing the state at least a billion dollars a year.
Sentencing reform is the primary culprit. The state's 1994 three-strikes law mandates life sentences without parole for certain repeat felons, and these recidivists—42,240 second- and third-strikers as of June 2002—will inevitably grow old and die in prison. Other than parole, the only ticket out of prison is compassionate release. Designed to liberate inmates who have six months or fewer to live and no longer pose a public threat, this legislation has emancipated an average of only 12 people a year since 1997. Inmates sentenced to life without parole or death are ineligible.
Californians overwhelmingly supported the three-strikes law 11 years ago, and so far they have deflected attempts to soften it. Without reform to reduce the number of "lifers," the best hope of containing healthcare costs lies within a recalcitrant system.
"She may have done some heinous or criminal act in her day, but at this point she's not a risk to the state any longer—other than fiscally," says state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of a select committee overseeing the correctional system. "We are locking up the elderly at the expense of building schools for students and keeping university fees down, and we can't pretend that it's not happening."
Do Californians want to spend a billion to keep old, feeble inmates from roaming the streets, even if it's in wheelchairs? Many people say yes. They believe in throwing away the key—no matter the cost.
"We believe if people commit a crime and have been tried, judged and sentenced, they need to serve the time," says J.P. Tremblay, an aide to Roderick Hickman, secretary of the state Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. "Just because we're in a budget crisis, we can't make crime-and-punishment decisions based on fiscal concerns."
Hundreds of those old inmates each cost the state $400,000 or more a year. Loheac entered the California Institution for Women 13 years ago, at age 69, upon being sentenced to 25 years to life for conspiracy to commit murder. She says she thought she was just doing her troubled son a favor in handing off a wad of cash to a man. That man was an undercover cop, as it turned out, and the money was for a hit.
In California, a life sentence almost always means just that, even if the Board of Prison Terms recommends parole. Former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, stated that murderers would leave prison during his term only "in a pine box." Republican Gov. Schwarzenegger is on exactly the same page.
In the 1950s, California became the first state to operate a prison specifically for elderly inmates, but it closed in 1971 when the prison population dipped. Today, old felons are sprinkled throughout the 163,939-inmate system, though federal studies indicate that mainstreaming ultimately costs more than establishing specialized units. Once ahead of the curve, the state now lags in adjusting to demographic realities.