The Silver Boom: Aging Behind Bars in RI
In less than 20 years a quarter of the state's population will be older than 60. In a series we call "The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island," we're looking at how the state will take care of this expanding older population .. and how it can benefit from it. In this installment, we travel to Cranston to look at the state’s aging prison population.
One tends to think of prisoners as young people but a fast growing segment of the corrections population is elderly. Here at the John J. Moran Medium Security Facility you'll find about 50 inmates who are 65 and older. 76 year old Carlton Bleau is one of them.
"Anti authority,” says Bleau with defiance in his voice. “I always have been. And I admit it. That's my downfall.”
Bleau has served 20 years of a 55 year sentence for sexual assault and it doesn't look like he's getting out any time soon. The parole board has denied six bids for freedom because he won't participate in the Sex Offender Treatment Program. Bleau says the program won't take him because he won't admit his guilt.
"I'm not guilty of the actual charge. It was consensual and it was more or less of a setup. A young lady, 28 years old, picked me up in a bar.”
Bleau knows there is a very real possibility he'll die in prison.
"Hopefully I'm not looking at a wheelchair, let's put it that way. I know eventually it's going to come. I have to deal with that."
Once a week Bleau and about half a dozen other aging inmates meet to support one another. The group is run by Rhode Island College social work intern Matt Aucoin. They allowed us to tape a recent session provided we did not reveal the inmates' crimes.
Aucoin begins the meeting this way:
"Today we're going to be talking about some of the topics that you guys really wanted to talk about that we talked about last week."
The inmates complain about cold cells, standing outdoors in the rain and snow for medications and then finding out that their meds have been lost.
56 year old Joe Wilson says it's happened to him twice in the past year. "After you go without Prilosec for three days can you imagine the acid reflux? Sticking your head in the toilet trying to get the acid out of your stomach. This time I had to go two weeks."
63 year old Charles Marchetti gripes about the younger inmates. "These young kids come in. They don't know the rules. They don't know the ropes. They don't want to know the rules and automatically they start rebelling and bucking. It draws all kinds of cops and heat to you, your cell block, your cell. And that's why the older guys would like their own block."
Although elderly prisoners constitute only two percent of Rhode Island's prison population, they are a fast growing group. The American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project projects that geriatric inmates will constitute over a third of the nation's prison population by 2030. The explosion is due to tough-on-sentencing laws passed in the 1980's and 90's.
Incarcerating this elderly population is a costly burden to taxpayers. Rhode Island does not break down medical costs by the age of the inmate, but the National Institutes of Health estimates elderly inmates cost two to three times more than their younger brethren. Rhode Island Department of Corrections director A.T. Wall says aging prisoners are not eligible for Medicare but the state does receive Medicaid discounts.
"We have geriatric inmates who report a variety of ailments,” Wall explains. “Almost 50 percent of our inmates have high blood pressure with the attendant consequences of it. 42 percent have mobility issues -- arthritis in particular. Another 42 percent have problems with high cholesterol and some of these inmates are the same inmates with multiple issues. Diabetes? About one in five of our geriatric inmates. Almost one in five of our geriatric inmates have serious mental health issues. So this is a population that is not well and requires special care and costly treatments."
Outside prison walls geriatric is defined as over 65. But the National Institute of Corrections defines elderly prisoners as those age 50 and up due to unhealthy conditions prior to and during incarceration.
Brad Brockmann, director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at the Miriam Hospital, says the typical prisoner comes in with a number of health issues.
"You have rates of HIV at five times the general population; Hepatitis C ten times the population; tuberculosis up to 17 times and every other thing: asthma, diabetes, you name it and the illness is at a higher rate just for the population. So as the population is aging those health conditions they've come in with tend to contribute to quicker deterioration physically and mentally."
The evidence suggests that elderly prisoners who are released back into the community pose little risk to public safety. In Rhode Island the recidivism rate among prisoners overall is 42 percent. But among prisoners 55 years and older it's four percent.
David Fathi of the ACLU’s National Prison Project says society needs to re-think the warehousing of the elderly.
"We are long past the point of diminishing returns in using incarceration as a crime tool. It's bad for families. It's bad for the country and it's very, very expensive. And it's time that we begin to look at being smart on crime rather than being needlessly and reflexively tough on crime."
Most of Rhode Island's aging inmates are serving long sentences for murder and sexual assault. Even if they are released it's often difficult to find them housing. Carlton Bleau, the 76 year old sex offender who won't admit he raped a woman, sees the years to come this way:
"It's not too bright a future. Let's face it. As you get older things break down. Your whole system. Your legs, you can't walk. Your health deteriorates. Stuff like that. It's very bleak as far as a future in here."
So Bleau and the other elderly prisoners look ahead to a life when it will be harder to get to the top bunk, hear an officer's order, or even go to the bathroom.
Click here for more stories from our series The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island
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