Stealing Time

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

Though Kenner doesn't admit to any involvement in such crimes himself, he says he used to be "pretty wild. When you're in Rome, you got to be like the Romans. You know what I mean?

"I used to run with the worst crowd in here," he adds. "Jimmy Sherbondy. He killed a cop. Red Schwartzmiller. AbeTolley. They was all characters. Abe Tolley killed his wife, and his mother-in-law said, 'You can't do that!' So he killed her, too." Kenner chuckles at the thought.

Kenner's old buddies were indeed among the worst of the worst. James "Mad Dog" Sherbondy, described by a reporter in 1947 as a "snarling braggart who boasted that he would make Dillinger look like a piker," was just seventeen when he killed Eagle County deputy sheriff O.W. Meyer in 1937. After being captured in Hastings, Nebraska, Sherbondy told reporters, "Sure I plugged him. I had a .22 automatic and he wouldn't put up his hands. He thought I was too young to shoot him." Ten years later Sherbondy took part in one of the state's most infamous prison breaks. He was soon caught and returned to Old Max, where he spent the next seven years in solitary.

Though sentenced to life in prison, Sherbondy was set free in 1962 after his sentence was commuted. He was out only ten months when he committed an armed robbery in Illinois. After doing time in that state, Sherbondy was shipped back to Colorado to finish out his life term, which was reinstated following his arrest on the Illinois robbery charges. Sherbondy walked away from a Colorado prison honor farm in 1969 and died not long afterward in a shootout with Denver police detective Michael Dowd.

Kenner's pals Schwartzmiller and Tolley were among the eleven convicts who escaped with Sherbondy during the 1947 prison break, a brazen escapade that drew banner headlines in newspapers across the state on Christmas Eve. After busting out of a cell block known as "Little Siberia," the inmates KO'd a guard, took hostages and fled in the middle of a raging blizzard. Two of the escapees were shot to death. Schwartzmiller, who had been serving a 42-year term for attempted murder, took his own hostage and holed up in a ranch house. He was brought back to the prison in critical condition after being hit over the head with a hammer by the rancher's wife. Tolley was found in a snowdrift, frostbitten to his waist. According to Kenner, Tolley, who was serving a life term for murder, "spent eleven years in the hole for the escape."

"They're all gone now," Kenner says of his former cell-block companions. "Jimmy's dead. Cop shot him."

When he thinks about his old friends and compares them with the prisoners he's locked up with now, Kenner finds the younger ones lacking. "You don't have convicts no more," he complains. "You got inmates. Convicts go by a code of ethics. Tell somebody something and you can take it to the bank. Now you've got snitches. Years ago we had no place for them to hide. Now you got more rats in here than in the city dump."

Most elderly prisoners, Jonathan Turley says, are haunted by the prospect of drawing their last breath behind bars. "One of the big things that we in POPS hear over and over again is, 'I don't want to die in prison,'" he says.

The reality, though, is that some of them will die in prison. At Territorial, the staff has begun trying to help inmates come to grips with that eventuality.

About eighteen months ago, says Cheryl Smith, the prison implemented a "hospice-like program" for terminally ill inmates who, for one reason or another, can't have their sentence commuted. "It allows them to die within the walls with some kind of dignity," Smith says. "Family members are allowed to visit their bedside. They're allowed to have contact with their [inmate] friends in the system. We also help them with their physical and mental-health needs."

So far, twelve inmates have come--and gone--through the program. One had throat cancer. Another suffered from brain cancer. Several died from AIDS-related illnesses. Not all were elderly.

A prison chaplain tends to the dying inmates' spiritual well-being, and a volunteer psychologist helps them prepare for death. When it's apparent that an inmate won't survive an illness, Smith says, staffers broach the subject of whether or not the prisoner wishes to be resuscitated, and they raise the possibility of writing a living will, which can give someone else the power to decide when to remove them from life-support systems. If an inmate is unwilling or unable to make that decision, his or her family is consulted. If the inmate has no family or close friends, the state or a treating physician in a public hospital makes the determination, Smith says.

The infirmary at Territorial isn't sophisticated enough to maintain life-support systems, Smith notes. "When things get to that point, [the prisoners] have usually already been moved to a private-sector hospital, where the standards that apply to all their patients apply to the inmates as well," she says.

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