Stealing Time

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

Peters has been in Territorial just three years. He's serving an eleven-year sentence for killing his ex-wife. Peters and his former wife, though divorced, were living together in a home near Fairplay when, on the morning of September 18, 1992, he pulled out a twelve-gauge shotgun and shot her in the head.

Peters claimed the shooting was an accident, that the gun had gone off while his ex-wife was showing him how to kill a bear. Prosecutors, however, said the evidence proved that Virginia Peters had been asleep in bed at the time she was shot.

Investigators noted that Peters was calm on the day of the shooting, but they added that his conversation was "going off track." And Peters's befuddlement has only worsened behind bars. During a recent interview at Territorial prison, his rambling discourse veers quickly from discussing his sister's death to reciting recipes for pear pie--"canned pears are the best," he says--to the fact that he was a pilot in World War II. He carries with him a document attesting to his prowess in the war and stating that he was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, an American Campaign Medal and a World War II Honorable Service Lapel Button.

He's lucky to have the document to remind him, because other details from his past are fading away. "I had three children," he says. "No, four. I'm sorry," he says, and stops again. "Five."

Peters is already making plans to get out of prison. He wants to move to the desert and publish peoples' accounts of touring the country in recreational vehicles. He and his dead wife, he confides, personally visited 83 countries.

But he won't be eligible for parole until next year. If he completes his sentence, which runs through the year 2002, he'll be 83 when he gets out.

Peters's status as an elderly killer makes him something of an aberration in the prison system. Most of the older inmates entering prison for the first time come in as sexual offenders.

"Child molestation," Turley says, "is unique in that while other types of crime fall away as people age, child molestation remains a certain constant." Indeed, studies have shown that sex offenders are chronic recidivists who remain a threat literally until the day they die. Two years ago that troubling fact single-handedly killed a tentative legislative effort to establish an early-release program for elderly inmates in Colorado.

"When we looked at the statistics to see what kind of bed [space] would be generated by that," says DOC statistical analyst Kristi Rosten, "we found out that most of those over age 65 were sex offenders, and we [figured] that the parole board would probably not release them." With that, the proposal died.

State officials evaluated yet another plan to deal with elderly and infirm inmates earlier this year, when the state hospital in Pueblo proposed establishing a twenty- to thirty-bed forensic nursing-home unit in its facility. "We closed two children's cottages last year," explains Nell Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Colorado Mental Health Institute, "and we are trying to keep the hospital viable--and keep ourselves in business--by trying new programs. We work with the DOC on a lot of things, and we thought this would be a way to help them and keep some of our beds full."

DOC officials decided not to take the hospital up on its offer, claiming the system doesn't yet have a need for so many nursing-home beds. But those officials say the time is coming when the state might need to bite the bullet and open a special care facility for Colorado's elderly criminals. Schilling says preliminary discussions have already taken place about remodeling Territorial to accommodate more elderly prisoners, or even designing a geriatric unit at a 990-bed prison scheduled to open in Trinidad in 1999. Such a geriatric unit, Carolyn Schilling says, theoretically would contain more wet cells, additional accommodations for inmates with disabilities and perhaps even specialized exercise programs.

Schilling concedes that the DOC must complete a great deal of groundwork before it can seriously consider either suggestion. Staffers will have to determine costs, feasibility and need before presenting anything to the state legislature, which would have to decide whether to fund such a facility.

But Turley says the clock's ticking--and that many states may soon be forced to take more aggressive action. "The simple fact is that our prison population is graying," he says. "And prisons make perfectly horrible nursing homes."

All the talk about providing old cons with special treatment still seems foreign to Kenner, who remembers with seeming nostalgia the bad old days when Territorial was known as "Old Max" and had a reputation as one of the roughest prisons in the country.

"I came here in 1948," he says. "This was a penitentiary then. Half of these clowns here, they wouldn't have lasted a week back then. We'd have killings two times a week. They used to burn them in their cell. They used benzene. Take a can of that, throw it in the cell, slam the door and toss in some matches.

"This used to be a kill-happy place," he continues. "I seen people stabbed 35, 40 times. I seen a guy dropped from a tier on his head. The third tier."

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