Clifton Feathers killed a man in 1978, but he doesn’t look dangerous anymore. Today he’s a blind, old convict in a wheelchair, easy prey for younger prisoners who steal his snacks and keep him forever on edge.
Men and women like Feathers are an increasingly common sight in California’s sprawling penal system. Though the state’s overall prison population has been falling, the number of geriatric inmates has nearly tripled in the last dozen years, following a national trend.
Feeble, addled by Alzheimer’s or just plain old, they are symbols of two forces that have defined California’s approach to criminal justice for more than a decade: longer sentences and a dramatic decline in paroles.
They also have begun to strain prison budgets at a time when the state is facing a $24-billion deficit. Housing an old inmate can cost three times as much as housing a young one, studies show, mostly because the elderly are more often ill.
At the women’s prison in Corona, for instance, vans carrying sick convicts make 350 trips a month to outside hospitals--at $233 per trip, just for the guards and gasoline.
Helen Loheac, 79, leaves three times a week for dialysis, a routine that has continued for nine years.
More typical is Ernest Pendergrass, 79, a World War II veteran at the prison in Vacaville. Pendergrass, a wheezing, shaky lifer who has survived four types of cancer and a stroke behind bars, is a walking medicine cabinet.
Pendergrass’ daughter, a pharmacist, estimates his 12 daily pills run $1,800 a month. No one can guess what his surgeries, chemotherapy and other care have cost.
Those in charge of the California Department of Corrections are well aware of the graying prison population and the challenges it presents. But they have yet to tackle the problem head on.
In 1999, the department prepared an ambitious plan for an “older offender program” to better manage aging prisoners while saving taxpayers money. The message was clear: Act now, because the number of geriatrics will only continue to rise.
Three years later, it appears that warning has been mostly ignored by the Davis administration. Though many states have dedicated entire prisons to geriatrics and launched other programs to handle them in humane, cost-effective ways, California--with the nation’s largest and most expensive penal system--has not.
The Old Are Treated Just Like the Young
Instead, the old are treated like the young by the state’s 33 prisons, their problems handled on a case-by-case basis that varies from lockup to lockup.
There are no systemwide policies defined by age--not for housing, nutrition, health care, transfers or parole.
“They don’t seem to recognize that prisoners get old and have different needs,” said Laura Brisco, whose ailing 74-year-old father is assigned a top bunk in a cell with a 20-year-old who plays rap music all night long.
“We’re not asking for special treatment, just common sense.”
Michael Pickett, a deputy director of corrections, says California’s approach to dealing with aging convicts amounts to handling it “through the side door, not the front door.”
He defends the state’s treatment of elderly inmates, and said upcoming improvements in how the prisons dispense medical care will make it even better.
But the man atop the state’s correctional pyramid, Youth and Adult Correctional Secretary Robert Presley, is not proud of the current approach.
Prison Chief Concedes That Change Is Overdue
In an interview, Presley acknowledged that “a change in how we deal with this population is overdue.”
Presley wants to start by clustering old inmates in one prison, an approach that, ironically, California pioneered in 1954 but later abandoned. Presley has included the idea in his agency’s five-year plan, but he concedes it is not a priority for the Davis administration. Though a change might save money down the road, Presley says it would require some upfront investment that makes for a tough sell when the state is in fiscal distress.
As for other proposals--releasing the most frail, nonviolent geriatrics early, for example, or placing them in lower-security facilities to save money on guards--corrections officials say such changes are out of their hands. The law is clear, they say: If you do the crime, you do the time.
“Are there women here who are doing 25 years on a seven-to-life [sentence] and could probably be safely released into the community? Absolutely,” said Warden John Dovey at the California Institution for Women in Corona. “But that’s not my call.”
Legislators Unwilling to Look Soft on Crime
Those empowered to make such calls have shown little inclination to do so. The law-and-order mood in the Legislature--at its peak with adoption of the “three strikes” measure in 1994--remains dominant, especially in an election year.
Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto) pushed a bill in 1999 to shift some inmates over 60 out of prison--either to newly designated correctional nursing centers, or into electronic detention in their homes. Inmates would have qualified based on their health, risk of committing future crimes and the gravity of their offenses.
With security costs representing a sizable chunk of the state’s $4.8-billion corrections budget, Longville reasoned his idea could save taxpayers big money--especially in future years, as the proportion of old inmates grows. But the measure died in the Assembly, and Longville sees no groundswell of support that might prompt him to revive the idea.
“A lot of people around here have no interest in letting anybody out of prison,” Longville said. “It’s almost a religious thing. It’s certainly not a pragmatic approach.”
Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside) was among those opposed to Longville’s bill, saying it might have led to leniency for notorious convicts such as Sirhan Sirhan, 58, serving a life term for assassinating Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. More broadly, Pacheco says an inmate’s advancing age or deteriorating health should not be a reason for mercy.
“The thought that when someone reaches a certain age it excuses their previous criminal conduct is anathema to me,” Pacheco said. “It’s wrong morally. When you commit a crime, there’s punishment attached, and you’re required to pay.”
Critics Say Old Inmates and Taxpayers Suffer
Those who study prison systems say California’s approach to housing its aging inmates is bad for convicts and taxpayers alike.
For prisoners, it means the old are mixed with gangbangers and other young, still-violent felons, who show aged cellmates little patience or respect. Geriatrics must follow rules and routines designed for the young, live in cells built for the able-bodied and eat meals prepared for those with all their teeth.
For taxpayers, the mainstreaming of elderly convicts represents a missed opportunity to save government money, analysts say. If California grouped old inmates in a variety of custodial settings according to how dangerous they are, it could dramatically cut the costs of incarcerating them.
“We’re not talking about mollycoddling prisoners,” said Jonathan Turley, law professor and founder of the Project for Older Prisoners, a national advocacy group that has advised the New York and Illinois penal systems, among others. “It’s a matter of realizing your population is not homogenous and taking steps that can save a lot of money--especially in a state with a prison system as large as California’s.”
Relatives of aged inmates say the state penal system fails geriatrics in many ways, but they worry most about their vulnerability behind bars. There are two forms of currency in prison: money and muscle. Elderly convicts typically have neither.
“That lands them at the bottom of the feeding chain,” said Turley, “and they can sometimes be victimized just for show.”
In today’s less-violent prison culture, severe beatings or rapes of the old are uncommon. More typical is the day-in, day-out struggle against extortion, bullying and disrespect.
“We all know grandparents who complain they’re afraid to walk at night because of crime,” Turley said. “Imagine being a geriatric in a neighborhood where everyone is certifiably violent.”
Feathers, 76, is a vivid case in point.
Blinded by diabetes and crippled by multiple sclerosis, he spends his days rolling his wheelchair to and from meals, the prison canteen, the shower. Helping him is another inmate on wheels, Bob Hussey, 67, a chatty, bespectacled fellow who sticks up for his friend as best he can.
Before he met Hussey, Feathers used spoonfuls of instant coffee, money and other items as bribes to get younger inmates to help him. Hussey put an end to the extortion. But life remains hard for a grizzled con who can’t see.
“Cliff can’t manage his tray, so I bring him his meals,” Hussey said. “He needs a lot of help.... If he trips and falls, you might as well shoot him.”
Feathers is a schizophrenic who was put away for shooting his grown son. A World War II veteran, he says he mistook his boy for a German soldier during a flashback caused by post-traumatic stress syndrome.
At his last parole hearing, the San Bernardino County sheriff opposed his release, saying Feathers had killed his son to collect on an insurance policy.
Two out of three parole commissioners decided the inmate needed more “insight” into the crime and was not ready to go home to his wife in Texas. The third supported parole. Feathers, he noted, is not only blind and incapacitated but has been no trouble during 20 years behind bars.
Inmate Ranks Grow Older at Faster Rate
The graying of the prisons is in part a reflection of the aging population at large. But the inmate ranks have grown older at a faster rate, statistics show.
One reason is the enactment of laws imposing longer sentences for violent crime, including the “three strikes” measure passed by the California Legislature in 1994, and later ratified by voters. That law, targeting career criminals, has so far put more than 7,160 felons in prison for 25 years to life.
They will eventually be eligible for parole, but not any day soon. Tweaks in the law have sharply limited the amount of time inmates can shave off their terms by working, meaning they will serve longer sentences than in the past.
And these days, simply becoming eligible for parole is no guarantee of a ticket home. The parole board and Gov. Gray Davis are freeing far smaller numbers of prisoners than was previously the case.
Statistics show that inmates 55 and over now make up about 4% of California’s prison population, totaling about 5,800 men and women. But experts say that number is deceptively low. Because their lives have been marked by substance abuse, violence and a lack of medical care, most prisoners are physiologically up to 10 years older than their true age, the National Institute of Corrections reports.
Analysts say such inmates represent huge hidden costs in California’s corrections budget. Last year, the state spent $676 million on inmate medical care--almost twice what was spent seven years earlier. Officials can’t say how much of that amount went for geriatrics, but concede the elderly are more likely to require a 24-hour hospice bed, expensive cardiac care, organ transplants, cancer treatment and special supervision for dementia.
As they grow more feeble and sick, geriatric prisoners also become less dangerous. At some point in life, scholars agree, a sort of “criminal menopause” sets in and felons grow less impetuous, less prone to violence. Though there are famous exceptions, national studies show that only about 2% of men paroled after 55 return to prison.
“So the costs of imprisonment go way up at the same time the benefits of imprisonment, in terms of public safety, go way down,” said Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. Keeping old cons like Feathers locked up, he argues, “shouldn’t make us sleep any better at night.”
Others, however, are more cautious. Pickett, the deputy director of corrections, has seen inmates in wheelchairs “beat the bark off men standing on their own two feet.”
“You’d be surprised what these guys can do,” he said. And even a disabled geriatric, he and others note, can still make a phone call and orchestrate a violent crime.
Advocates for victims agree, and oppose leniency for aging offenders. They say worries about growing budget deficits and taxpayer dollars should take a back seat to the goals of punishment and justice.
“The people who commit these heinous crimes have to be held accountable,” said Harriet Salarno, chairwoman of Crime Victims United of California. Salarno said she might not fight low-security confinement for old, sick convicts whose offenses were minor, but she objects to changes for those with violent pasts, however distant.
“Society handed down the punishment,” she said, “and the punishment should be fulfilled.”
Presley, the youth and adult correctional secretary, agrees that “paying one’s debt” must be factored into any debate over how to treat aged prisoners. But he also suspects that Californians are compassionate when it comes to the plight of the elderly--even those with rap sheets. He also knows taxpayers are “anxious for government to cut costs wherever it can.”
One way for California to do that, corrections experts say, is by diversifying how it manages aged criminals.
No one recommends the wholesale release of felons just because they are old. Indeed, though many of the elderly are serving long sentences for crimes in the distant past, an estimated 45% are incarcerated for offenses--many of them violent--within the last two years, national figures show.
But geriatrics can be a cost-savings bonanza for states that choose to group them by risk, says Herbert Rosefield, a consultant and former superintendent of a geriatric prison in North Carolina.
The high-risk group--those with potential for future violence--can be clustered in geriatric units or stand-alone prisons, as Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio and other states have done. Such units save money because they are staffed with specialists who detect gerontological diseases before they turn chronic and more costly to treat.
A second group--those who may still be a risk for embezzlement but too feeble to scale a razor-wire fence--could be moved into minimum-security facilities or correctional nursing homes, where fewer guards means lower budgets. The oldest, most infirm, or those convicted of nonviolent crimes long past, might be moved into supervised forms of release, such as parole.
Pickett, the deputy director of the Corrections Department, says he can see the fiscal virtue of shifting some old inmates to lower-security housing, or even granting them early passes home. But he says many geriatrics have no place to go. Those convicted of heinous crimes are sometimes rejected by their families. Others outlive their relatives.
Turley, however, said his group can always find someplace for an old con. Many have veterans’ pensions, others can qualify for halfway houses run by nonprofit groups. Since 1989, Turley and his team of volunteer law students have won the release of more than 200 geriatric inmates, a process that involves rigorous screening, including consultation with victims. Not one of the 200, he said, has been convicted of a new crime.
With its 1999 report on older offenders, the Department of Corrections seemed on the cusp of a new management approach. Some of the report’s suggestions were obvious: training guards to handle inmates with Alzheimer’s, developing easy-to-chew diets, recruiting gerontologists. Others were more provocative: exploring options such as early release and home detention.
But a task force formed to tackle the problem never got off the ground, because of budget cuts, officials say. And today, the state continues to house inmates with no formal regard for age.
James Marquardt, 70, is one who appears to suffer from this one-size-fits-all approach. Convicted in 1997 on a sexual abuse charge, he is scheduled to go free in 2020, but convinced he won’t live that long.
For one thing, Marquardt is battling emphysema, heart disease, lung disease and asthma that flares up when he’s stressed--which is most of the time. More pressing is his weight. Since arriving at Folsom State Prison three months ago, he has dropped 25 pounds. A prison dentist pulled all his teeth--"they were pretty much rotted,” he said--and the dentures that replaced them don’t fit.
“I can’t really chew,” he said. “So mostly, I just wait for mashed potatoes.”
Marquardt sought help, but the wait for new dentures is months long. Surrounded by young, muscular inmates shooting hoops, pounding out push-ups and huddling in racial gangs around the teeming prison yard, Marquardt sneaks nervous glances over one shoulder, then the other.
“I don’t see things getting any better,” he said.
Oddly enough, California did not always treat inmates of all ages alike. In fact, the state was the first in the nation to operate a prison strictly for geriatrics, converting an old Army hospital in San Luis Obispo into the California Men’s Colony in 1954.
But the special unit was closed in 1971 due to a dip in the prison population, and its 1,000 inmates were dispersed. Another dorm for aged criminals--at the California Institute for Men in Chino--operated into the 1990s. But it now houses a mix of geriatrics and younger inmates with missing limbs and other disabilities.
Though there is no systemwide policy on aging convicts emanating from Sacramento, many who work with the incarcerated see the problems and try to make a difference in small ways.
At the California Institution for Women, Warden Dovey recently hosted a meeting with older inmates. A few had simple requests, asking for a heating pad or thicker mattress to make it easier to sleep. Some women pushing 80 said they were worn out and wondered whether they could ever retire from their prison jobs. The answer: Not unless a doctor declares you medically disabled.
Among those seeking help from Dovey was the dialysis patient, Loheac, who asked whether the ankle shackles inmates wear to the hospital might be waived, as their design was causing her to trip. The warden quickly investigated, then agreed to her request, calling it a “balancing of security concerns with dignity and humanity.”
At the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, where Feathers is doing his time, Chaplain Keith Knauf trains volunteer inmates to spend time with the dying in the prison hospice. Knauf sees felons at the very end, hears their final regrets, hopes and fears. What they all dread most, he says, is dying in prison.
“They may be free on the inside--spiritually--but they still dream of dying a free man,” Knauf said.
Frank Parker knows that dream; he dreams it himself. At 68, Parker walks with a cane and is speckled with bruises--evidence of his tendency to pass out and keel over from time to time. He has high blood pressure, heart disease, two hearing aids, false teeth, an artificial knee. He’s had three strokes while in prison and takes 21 different medications a day.
A Korean War veteran, Parker has an Army pension, a house that’s paid for and children ready to welcome him home. But he’s also a convicted murderer, sent away for killing a man he says was running around with his wife. And though he’s served 20 years, the parole board has not seen fit to set him free.
“I try to tell them I could save the state a fortune if they’d let me out,” Parker said with a laugh. “But they just don’t see it that way.”
Times researcher Patti Williams contributed to this report.