For Elderly Convicts ‘Freedom’ can be a Scary Thought
My first cellie when I came to prison was a 73 year old man. Mr. Montoya had escaped from a Colorado halfway house in 1982 and subsequently stabbed a man in a bar fight in Wyoming and got 30 years. After that, he’d been returned to Colorado to finish his sentence here. How an old man, bent over and needing a walker to traverse even the short distances to medical or chow hall, Mr. Montoya was being let out of prison. One of the few prisoners to see the street at his first parole eligibility date, he was not enthusiastic about the prospect of his upcoming release on parole, something less than ‘freedom.’ Whatever family he’d once had were long since dead. He was being returned to a community he was tied to only by some ancient crime with a parole plan that called for things like regular attendance at AA meetings. Afflicted with diabetes, and having suffered two heart attacks in the preceding decade, drinking was the least of Mr. Montoya’s worries.
Maybe at one time he’d dreamt of getting out and drinking a cold beer, of making love again to a woman, of having a car or a bike. Those dreams had died decades ago. How he wondered how he would negotiate getting to his medical appointments in a small town in southern Colorado with no public transportation, wondered where he would lay his head when the $100 in gate money they hive him runs out, and he uses up the one week motel voucher. Barely able to negotiate the yard, his eyes so bad he could no longer read, his mind itself stating to fail, Mr. Montoya was terrified by the prospect of his impeding release. There was no one and nothing on the other side of the fence of the penitentiary he cared about anymore.
Seniors past age 60 like Mr. Montoya account for just over three percent of Colorado state prisoners. They account for a large and growing share of healthcare costs however. Across the country by enacting tough ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ sentencing schemes, states have saddled themselves with the burden of providing healthcare to a growing number of elderly men, an expensive proposition. According to figures provided by DOC to the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC), prisoners age 50 accounted for ten percent of the state prison population as of June 20, 2008 . Mandatory minimum sentences, enhancements, habitual offender statutes, mandatory parole statutes, and the large number of prisoners who will serve past their parole eligibility date mean that many will still be here when they pass age 60.
Most are here for violent crimes. Non-violent offenders account for over half of DOC ’s population. The likelihood of elderly offenders returning to the community to commit new crimes like burglary is probably slight. Mr. Baker however was already well past 60 when he was sentenced to 70 years for selling an ounce of cocaine to a police informant. At the time of his arrest he had an extensive prior record for passing bad checks. One of his friends, another ancient convict, is serving a life sentence in a fraud case. The 62 year old Mr. Vigil, diabetic, partly senile, and unable to read, is mildly retarded. That didn’t prevent him though from robbing a bank in Pueblo claming to have a gun, for which he received six years. That the actions of each of these men merited prosecution is not in dispute. But with tuition at Colorado state universities having risen more than a third in the past four years its young people and their families who will pay the price for the disproportionate sentences many men here have received.
Like the mentally ill, the elderly are especially vulnerable at prison to being the victims of assault or exploitation by younger convicts. Health problems can heighten that risk. Living in a cell with a 73 year old man who has difficulty controlling his bladder is a singularly unpleasant experience. The classification system within DOC rarely takes an offender’s advanced age into account. As a result at nearly 80 years old, Mr. Baker is housed on the high security ride of a maximum security prison, alongside some of the state’s most dangerous convicts. Increasingly DOC is being forced to function as a nursing home to its elderly prisoners and their extensive medical needs, a role it is poorly designed to fulfill. While prisons have always held a few elderly convicts, the legislature’s appetite for even harsher sentences has greatly increased the number of such offenders. Without a corresponding investment in the successful reintegration of men like Mr. Montoya the impact of such sentences is to release men who are old, sick, and destitute to burden the already over taxed resources of shelters and public hospitals in the communities they fell from. With such communities already being forced to make deep cuts in their own budgets men like Mr. Montoya have little to look forward to.