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Stealing Time

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

"I refuse to go to jail for something that was not my fault," the note continued. "My two loves, I wish that I had gone with you. Now, some folks found what I had to do to Mary. I wish I could tell what happened but I don't know. I wish that I did. I don't know what to say as the only thing I can think about is dying. I will soon."

Instead, Ashton remained very much alive, as a guest of the State of Colorado. He testified that he had intended to commit suicide after writing the note but had been unable to do so. A jury found him guilty of two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of abuse of a corpse. A judge handed down two consecutive 25- to 35-year sentences.

Since landing in prison, Ashton has suffered from a variety of medical ailments in addition to the difficulties with his leg, and he has made numerous visits to Territorial's infirmary. "I've got a bad shoulder," he says. "Both shoulders have been dislocated. I've had my neck broke and my back broke. I've dealt with some tough critters--horses, bulls, logging trucks--and anything else that could run you over."

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His biggest worry, he says, is his heart. "I had a six-way bypass--I got filberts and wires in here," he says, thumping his chest. "Everything in there is false." The heart operation, like his recent amputation, was performed outside the prison at state expense.

Despite his poor health, though, Ashton says he doesn't fear being victimized by an inmate who's younger and stronger. "There's nobody in here I'm afraid of," he says.

In March 1995, Colorado corrections officials briefly considered a plan that would have significantly changed the state's treatment of elderly prisoners: opening an inmate-only nursing home in a private facility about to be closed in the town of Florence.

"We were thinking about it for the people who need more care, the geriatric inmates and those who need more hands-on care, such as paraplegics and quadriplegics," says Smith. "It would have meant that the inmates wouldn't have to go outside in inclement weather to go to the chow hall or programs. People who shuffle when they walk would face less risk of injury."

But officials wound up putting the kibosh on the idea. They were still uncertain whether or not there was a pressing need for such a facility, and the citizens of Florence, a town that already includes a federal prison complex, weren't thrilled with the idea. The final nail in the coffin: the proposed felon's rest home was next to a school.

For now, the only system in place for addressing aging inmates whose failing health might make them candidates for early release is the traditional "commutation" process. Under that procedure, information about an inmate's medical condition and the nature of the crime committed is sent to the governor, who decides whether to commute the prisoner's sentence.

In the past eight years, Smith says, the sentences of five or six terminally ill prisoners (not all of them elderly) were commuted, and the inmates were released. Another man, who was senile and suffering from Alzheimer's, was paroled to a private nursing home. Unfortunately, the option of sending elderly prisoners into nursing homes isn't often available. According to Smith, only a limited number of nursing homes accept Alzheimer's sufferers--let alone felons.

From time to time the state legislature has considered allowing the state parole board to release certain inmates who are 65 or older. Similar programs have been undertaken in other states, primarily because they open up bed space for violent offenders and can cut down on taxpayer-funded medical expenses. Those efforts are part of a growing movement nationally to release elderly, nonviolent prisoners who are deemed both high-cost and low-risk. For example, in Turley's POPS program, law-student volunteers conduct extensive background checks on individual inmates to assess the likelihood that the prisoner will commit a crime when released. The group might then recommend to a parole board that the inmate be placed under house arrest and monitored with an electronic tracking bracelet or paroled to a nursing home.

"There's a great deal of debate about what causes recidivism," Turley says, "but one issue that everyone in the field agrees with is that the most reliable predictor of risk is age. As people grow older, the statistical likelihood of new offenses occurring drops off significantly."

Many POPS prisoners are in their sixties and seventies, Turley says. A few are in their nineties. "By the time POPS recommends an inmate for release, they are statistically less dangerous than the students I drive to the prison with," the professor claims.

But Turley cautions that age isn't the only factor in predicting recidivism. "For example," he says, "if a prisoner is incarcerated at age 65, he hardly fits the model of a low-risk geriatric inmate." As Turley once told a group of corrections officials, "It's obviously hard to argue that someone's a low recidivist because they're 68 when they murdered their girlfriend at age 66."

A cautionary case in point for Colorado officials is James Detroit Peters, who at 77 is the fourth-oldest inmate in the Colorado system.

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