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Stealing Time

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

The shift is presenting fiscal, moral and practical problems for a system designed primarily with younger offenders in mind. For instance, providing older inmates with medical care, special diets and customized exercise and work programs ends up costing prisons up to three times the price tag of caring for a young, healthy prisoner, says George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who founded the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Older Prisoners (POPS).

"I expect we'll be facing more medical issues such as prostate cancer, breast cancer and menopause," says Wham. "Those things haven't had to be dealt with much in prison."

There are 611 men and 15 women over age fifty living in Colorado prisons today. As a rule, the older inmates fall into three categories: those who committed a crime after the age of fifty and are sentenced to prison for the first time; habitual criminals like Kenner who've been in and out of prison for decades; and those who were handed down long sentences while still relatively young. Convict Delmar Spooner fits the last description. Now sixty, he has been in prison for 34 years, the longest term of any Colorado inmate. He was just 25 in 1961 when he earned a life sentence for killing a state trooper, shooting a sheriff and wounding a state game and fish warden, all in the same day.

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Three men in the prison system are over age eighty. The oldest is Jose Martinez, who at age 85 is the granddaddy of all Colorado prisoners. He was 83 when a Denver judge sent him up the river for sexual assault on a child. If he ends up serving his entire sentence, he'll be locked up until he's 91. Cissy Taylor, 70, has the dubious distinction of being the oldest woman in the system; she's serving twenty years for blowing up the Fifth Quarter tavern in La Plata County back in 1986.

Generally, when inmates age, they become less of a management problem, less prone to commit assaults or cause trouble. For that reason, the majority of the state's older convicts are housed in medium-security prisons. But there are a few bad actors whose in-house misbehavior has landed them in the Colorado State Penitentiary, the state's toughest prison, where they are locked down in their cells 23 hours a day. Since arriving in stir four years ago, Su Mo Ki, a 61-year-old Jefferson County man serving eight years for sexually assaulting a child, has been written up for more than twenty violations, including verbal abuse and disobeying a lawful order. His performance was enough to earn him the status of being the oldest man in solitary.

Most older inmates end up in the less restrictive Fremont and Territorial facilities in Canon City. Because Territorial has a 32-bed infirmary and Fremont has 24-hour nursing services, the two facilities can provide more intensive medical care than other prisons. In addition, there are a greater number of "wet cells" (those containing toilets and showers), and the DOC has made the facilities more accessible to the disabled, installing handrails and wheelchair ramps.

At Fremont and Territorial, care is taken to ensure that frail inmates are placed in cells on lower floors and close to the dining hall. If they're forced to share a cell, the older inmates get the lower bunk. The DOC is even considering introducing a new line of prison uniforms with Velcro closures in place of buttons to make it easier for those with arthritic hands to dress themselves.

Not all the older inmates in the Colorado system are infirm. But at least seven are on oxygen, and ten of them (including four suffering from dementia) have been deemed likely candidates for placement in a private nursing home, says DOC director of nursing Carolyn Schilling.

A 1989 study by the federal Bureau of Prisons found that older inmates have a higher incidence of chronic illnesses, suffering an average of three such ailments during their incarceration. But there is no precise age that marks the dividing line between an elderly inmate and one deemed geriatric, says Cheryl Smith, clinical administrator at Territorial. That status is determined by the amount of care an inmate requires. In prison, however, the age at which people tend to need such care is apt to be lower than that in the population at large.

"Because of the prisoners' lifestyle, they often age quicker than the general population," says Smith. "Drug use, living on the wild side, riding motorcycles and getting banged up--all that has to be considered."

Some of the elderly inmates at Territorial are assisted by inmate porters, who help them clean their rooms, get to the chow hall or fetch food trays. The program helps the older prisoners remain in general population and out of the infirmary, which Smith says is good for them.

"There are social things and activities in general population that we don't have in the [infirmary]," she says. "And when they can no longer care for themselves, we bring them in here." Other states have reported problems with the assault and rape of elderly inmates, and Smith is concerned about the safety of Colorado's older prisoners. "If other inmates prey on them because they're weak and fragile or [are] abusing them because they can't defend themselves," she says, "they need to be isolated."

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