Stealing Time

As its inmate population ages, the Colorado prison system discovers there's no con like an old con.

The Insiders
It's not easy getting old in prison. But in Colorado, it's getting easier.
The number of elderly felons being held in the state prison system is expected to soar dramatically in coming years, as an increasing number of life sentences continue to tick away. And, afraid of being overwhelmed by geriatric criminals, state officials are taking steps to deal with inmates for whom a life sentence begins at sixty.

The Department of Corrections already has prisons that specialize in housing senior citizens, facilities that offer infirmaries, special diets, even inmate "porters" who, like big-house Boy Scouts, help old convicts across the exercise yard. A prison hospice exists for inmates dying behind bars. Officials are now discussing the need for more elaborate measures--including a wholly separate prison unit for the elderly that could come on line as early as 1999.

It costs taxpayers more and more to house prisoners as they get older, and certain inmates are sure to demand additional services as they age. But some of the oldest prisoners in the system, men who did time with the toughest cons in the state's history, seem almost insulted by efforts made on their behalf. After seeing fabled bloodletters like teen killer James "Mad Dog" Sherbondy go down fighting, they resist anything that smacks of coddling.

In the third of a Westword series on the state's new breed of "special needs" inmates, Karen Bowers examines the graying of Colorado's criminals--and the labyrinth of personal stories that make up one of the penal system's most difficult challenges.

When 67-year-old Earl Kenner tends the grounds outside Territorial prison in Canon City, he sometimes stops and stares at the deep blue mountains rising above him or watches the steady flow of traffic passing by on Highway 50, carrying tourists to the Royal Gorge. It would be easy enough to walk away, he thinks, and he surely has reason to do so. "I've still got a trainload of time," says Kenner, a burglar by trade and a convict by circumstance. He says he won't be eligible for parole until the year 2035--or "sumpin' like that."

But at the end of each workday, Kenner heads back inside and lets the gates slam behind him.

There's not much left for him outside the walls anymore, says Kenner. He's got six kids, but they've scattered. The rest of his family is dead, and his friends are mostly other cons. The world beyond Territorial has changed a lot in the thirty or so years he's spent behind bars, and he hasn't changed enough.

"You've got to ask yourself where you're going and what you're gonna do if you walk away," Kenner says, trying to explain why the world has no pull on him anymore. "You ain't got no chance out there. A thief's day is over; it's no longer a business. Technology the way it is today, why, the cops will take your hand and put it on a deal in their patrol car, and they can ID you in seconds.

"When I was a kid," he continues, "if you'd go to another county [to commit a crime], you was safe as soon as you crossed back over that line. But now they can follow you to the ends of the earth. They didn't have [two-way] radios in them days, either. Now, who can outrun a helicopter or a radio? You can't even rob a little old store anymore--they got cameras.

"No," he says, "I can't thieve, and I'm too damn old to be running in and out of joints anymore."

He might as well stay where he is and do his time, Kenner figures. The State of Colorado, after all, has made him reasonably comfortable. If he sticks around long enough, he may even get to see a new prison unit built just for old cons. And though he longs to see and do things outside the walls, it doesn't do any good to spend life wishing for what can't be changed.

"I miss everything," Kenner acknowledges. "But it don't do no good to miss anything. Chicken today, feathers tomorrow. You got to take what you can get. You know what I mean?"

Historically, the country's prisons have been holding pens for the young and incorrigible. But with the aging of the baby boomers and the increasing number of life-without-parole sentences being handed down by judges, the demographics of the penal population is changing. By the year 2000, it's expected that 17,000 inmates over the age of fifty will be housed in the federal Bureau of Prisons alone, more than doubling the 1980 census for that age group. In an evaluation conducted this past spring, the Colorado Department of Corrections predicted it will be responsible for as many as 1,000 inmates over the age of fifty by the year 2000, an increase of more than 50 percent.

"It's been apparent for several years that we are going to have a huge geriatric population, because we're putting people in prison for such long periods of time," says Republican state senator Dottie Wham of Denver, who has had a longtime interest in corrections issues. "The life-without-parole sentence has really exacerbated the problem. We're going to be looking at an increasing number of people who are seventy-plus." The state, Wham adds, is "going to have to figure out how to deal with that."

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