By Bree Davies
By William Breathes
By William Breathes
By Michael Robert
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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."
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.
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."
Twenty years ago, Frank Ashton says in a cowboy drawl, "no one messed with the old prisoners. It used to be that the middle-aged prisoners protected the older ones. But now there's no middle-aged people to protect the older inmates. There's just vultures who pick the bones of others, the ones who get their bones picked, and the ones who stand in the middle."
The 64-year-old Ashton, in on a double-murder rap since 1977, has seen a gradual breakdown of what used to be a key component of the convict's code: Respect your elders. "These youngsters, most of 'em have no work experience or ethics, and they're as low as they can be," he says after steering his wheelchair up to a table in a Territorial prison conference room. "They work in the kitchen and get a dollar a day, and that's not enough for a pack of cigarettes. One dollar a day, and most of them have relinquished their ties to their families, so they get no money from them."
The younger inmates turn to their elders for extra cash, Ashton says, and the result is sometimes ugly. "If they can't talk [an older inmate] out of their money, they'll 'borrow' or steal," he says. "Some of the older guys, they'll forget. They won't lock their door, and they have no idea who goes in and out of their room."
The older cons, Ashton says, can make it on a dollar a day because they're not inclined to be foolish with their money and they tend to share what they do have with one another. "The older inmates have a better chance of getting something [from another inmate] because they appreciate it so much more," he says.
Ashton meets his own needs for money and canteen items--mainly cigarettes and extra coffee--by working as a prison clerk and performing other assignments. "I've worked pretty near all the jobs around here," he says. But he has had to be more frugal of late. He's been temporarily unemployed and wheelchair-bound since doctors took off a portion of his right leg earlier this year. The surgery was paid for by the state.
"I lost my leg because of being shot in it," he says. "I shot myself once. I broke it a couple times and got it frostbit." He claims, too, that he was ambushed and shot in the leg a second time while serving in the Air Force during the Korean War. The leg, he says, "just wouldn't make it anymore" and was first amputated about thirty years ago. Physicians took off a bit more this past January.
The state has contracted with an outside company to buy Ashton a new artificial leg. Until the prosthesis is ready, Ashton is watching his coffee intake, hoarding his butts and spending most of his time sunning himself in the prison yard and "minding my own business." He's tan and leathered from his time outdoors--just like he was in the old days.
Ashton was born and raised on a ranch about 100 miles west of Bozeman, Montana, and says he never wanted to live anyplace else. "Montana," he says, "is like a magnet to anybody who ever lived there. But it's a hard place to live in, a hard place to make a living."
Ashton says he "supposes it must have been insanity" that led him from Montana to Colorado's Moffat County, where he was tried and convicted for the 1977 slayings of two twenty-year-old women. "I was en route to someplace else in Colorado, and I ended up in prison," he says. "I don't care to discuss the events of the crime, because there's my version and there's others."
The body of Mary Murdoch was discovered in April 1978 at the bottom of a cliff by a Colorado couple conducting a survey of peregrine falcons in Dinosaur National Monument. According to trial testimony, their attention was drawn to the area by Ashton, who allegedly was attempting to blow up the body with a crude homemade bomb.
Ashton was arrested later that same day. Two months later he told investigators where to find the remains of Jan Gentile, whose body lay on a rock outcropping above the spot where Murdoch was found.
By all accounts, Ashton had left Darby, Montana, in November 1977 accompanied by both women, who lived with him on a nearby ranch. Ashton later testified that the three of them were headed to Salt Lake City and that they were drinking and smoking marijuana on the way. In addition, Ashton testified, he may have snorted some PCP. The next thing he remembered, he told the court, he woke up to find the two women laying bloodied and dead in the back of his Dodge pickup truck.
Ashton said he then drove to the national monument, where he disposed of the bodies by throwing them off a cliff. On the day Ashton was arrested, he told investigators he had gone back to the site to bury the women to protect their corpses from scavengers.
When Ashton was taken into custody, officers discovered in his truck a handwritten note on the inside back cover of a paperback book. "Dear Mary and Jan," it read. "I love both of you in every way that is possible. The River has run dry. I must part this earth and join you.
"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."
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.
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."
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.
When a prisoner dies, the state gives family members time to claim the body and make arrangements for burial. If no one comes forward, the prison assumes responsibility for cremating the inmate's body. The funeral home hired to carry out the cremation is given the responsibility for disposing of the remains. "What they do with them, I don't know," Smith says.
Years ago, the bodies of some unclaimed inmates were shipped to Denver in a wooden coffin, to be donated for scientific study. The coffin would then be sent back to Canon City, to be used again when another inmate passed away.
Other prisoners were buried in a special section of the Greenwood Cemetery, about one mile south of the Territorial prison. The area for dead prisoners came to be known as "Woodpecker Hill" for the birds that flocked to the site. Historians say the woodpeckers destroyed many of the wooden grave markers placed on the inmates' graves, making it impossible now to identify the dead.
Earl Kenner won't talk about the possibility of dying in prison. "Maybe the walls will fall down," he says airily. "Who knows?"
The 67-year-old is working on an appeal to shorten his current sentences--the DOC says he won't be eligible for parole until 2011. "I got fifty for kicking a door in," he grouses. "There are guys in here doing fifteen for killing a guy." Still, he doesn't profess to hold out much hope of a release. "I got one of them court-appointed jobs right now," he says of his new attorney. "I'll tell you what--it's like buying oats for a dead horse."
Kenner, though, has made a tolerable life for himself inside the prison. "A parole officer told me once, 'You're a damn good convict, but a hell of a citizen,'" Kenner reports, with a smile. But he admits that if he had it to do over again, his life would be different.
"I just couldn't stay out [of prison]," he muses. "Couldn't stay out of people's stuff. Why? That's like asking a guy why he goes insane. It was a form of insanity. It had to be. I could have made more money throwing rocks at airplanes. You know what I mean?