Photo Essay

  • Anthony Alvarez, age 82, talks on the phone to his 80-year-old sister at California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, Dec. 20, 2013. Alvarez is assisted by the Gold Coats program, a volunteer care program where healthy prisoners volunteer to take care of elderly prisoners who either need general assistance or who also struggle with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The program, the first of it’s kind in the country, has existed for approximately 25 years; there are currently 11 “Gold Coats.” According to Alvarez, he has been incarcerated for 42 years due to a series of burglaries, possession of illegal firearms and escapes from county jail. Eventually these convictions led to him getting a 62-years-to-life sentence due to three-strike laws. “I never shot anyone,” Alvarez said, “I had the chance but I could never shoot anyone.”
  • Anthony Alvarez waits in line for breakfast while being assisted by Phillip Burdick, a fellow prisoner and member of the Gold Coats program, Dec. 19. 2013.
  • Nathan Brown (his real name has been changed at the request of the RIDC), a prisoner at Rhode Island’s John J. Moran Medium Security Prison, walks through his cell block, Dec. 10, 2013. Brown is 75 years old and is serving 55 consecutive years for first degree sexual assault; he arrived in prison in 1992. Brown denies he committed the crime for which he was convicted and refuses to go through a sexual rehabilitation program necessary to be eligible for parole. However, he does admit to serving time in jail prior to his current conviction for assault and weapons possessions. Brown is a trained carpenter, enjoys working in the prison library and also works in the prison’s laundry facility. He is also blind in one eye, suffers from arthritis, and has had numerous knee surgeries.
  • Nathan Brown walks through the prison yard after spending some free time at the prison library, Dec. 10, 2013.
  •  Frank Fuller, age 66, walks outside in the yard at California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, California, Dec. 20, 2013. Fuller is assisted by the Gold Coats program.
  • Kenny Wadley (L) works out his leg in physical therapy after being injured in a car accident, at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, Dec. 17, 2013. Wadley is currently serving seven-and-a-half years for possession of heroin. This is his fifth prison sentence. As of June 2013, California had 133,000 prisoners, of which 15,000 were over the age of 55.
  • John Armstrong (his name has been changed at the request of the RIDC), a prisoner at Rhode Island’s John J. Moran Medium Security Prison, watches television during free time in his cell, Dec. 10, 2013.  Armstrong, who is 61 and is currently in the most advanced stage (stage four) of Hepatitis C, has been in and out of prison since the late 1970s. The longest he served was 19 years for robbery (from a 25 year sentence), which lasted from 1987 until 2006. He said he used to rob people to buy cocaine. He was out of prison on probation for 16 months when he was found guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon in 2007, which landed him back in jail. Prior to being thrown back in jail, Armstrong had planned on opening a barbershop.
  • David Smith (his name has been changed at the request of the RIDC), a prisoner at Rhode Island’s John J. Moran Medium Security Prison, takes some of his free time to play with a dog, Dec. 10, 2013. Smith, who is 70, is currently six years into a 40 year sentence for attempted murder: this is his fifth time in state prison, he has also served two sentences in federal prison. He now suffers from a long list of medical problems including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, diabetes and ulcers. Smith is one of the rare prisoners who gets a cell to himself, due to his medical condition. Of John J. Moran Medium Security prison’s 1020 inmates, approximately 50 are 65 or older.
  • David Smith watches television during free time at Rhode Island’s John J. Moran Medium Security Prison, Dec. 10, 2013.
  • Walkers sit in a corner of the hospice care wing at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, Dec. 17, 2013.
  • George Whitfield, age 56, works with a physical therapist at California State Prison, Solano, on Dec. 16, 2013. This is Whitfield’s fourth time in prison - his current sentence is six years. He was sentenced for possession of narcotics with intent to sell and an illegal firearm. Whitfield denies the charges, saying police searched his house without presenting a warrant and only found marijuana that he used personally and a firearm he kept in his home. His previous three sentences, dating back to 1989, were allegedly for possession of marijuana, which he says he has only used recreationally. According to Whitfield, he suffered a stroke in 2007, which now forces him to use a walker. He also suffers from high blood pressure and has recently experienced numbness in his left arm.
  • George Whitfield uses a walker to walk back to his cell block at California State Prison, Solano.
  • George Whitfield, age 56, heads to the physical therapist’s office at California State Prison, Solano.
  • Prisoners wait in line for breakfast at California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, Dec. 19, 2013.
  • Frank Fuller, 66, stands alone in the prison yard during free time at California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, Dec. 19, 2013. Fuller is serving a 35-years-to-life sentence; he has been incarcerated since 1990. He has been in the Gold Coats program for over six years. He says he is serving time for the murder of his third wife, who he says he shot with a rifle in a drunken rage after learning she had been having an affair. He has been diagnosed with PTSD from serving in Vietnam; he also has Hepatitis C. Fuller, who took shrapnel in his legs from a mortar round, says he held many different positions while fighting in Vietnam, including being a machine gunner; he says he still suffers occasional flash backs. He says has served one other sentence for murdering a man with a .45 caliber gun in a fight.
  • Frank Fuller stands alone in the prison yard during free time.
  • Frank Fuller walks down the hall to his cell at California Men’s Colony prison.
  • Jim Robelen, age 76, a hospice care patient diagnosed with terminal pulminary fibrosis, watches television in the hospice care wing of California Medical Facility, Dec. 17, 2013. Robelen has been in prison since 1994 after being convicted of murder; he has been at CMF since 2011, and in the hospice care wing since October of 2013. He spoke glowingly of the doctors and the chaplain of the CMF hospice care.  While California has a compassionate release program for terminal patients in the last six months of life, the decision is ultimately made by judges, who frequently deny the request. CMF’s hospice was the first of it’s kind, originally created in the 1980s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The program currently holds 17 beds. When a patient arrives in CMF’s hospice, doctors immediately apply for compassionate release.
  • Jim Robelen washes his hands in the hospice care wing of California Medical Facility.
  • Ronald Collins, age 60, a hospice care patient, wipes down his head with cool water in the hospice care wing of California Medical Facility, Dec. 17, 2013.
  •  Ronald Collins gets his hair cut in the hospice care wing of California Medical Facility, Dec. 17, 2013.
  • John Gillis (the prisoner’s name has been changed at his request), age 73, a hospice care patient diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, takes his daily medication in the hospice care wing of California Medical Facility, Dec. 17, 2013. Gillis is serving a 30 year sentence for a crime he chose to not disclose. He was diagnosed with cancer in April 2013; doctors currently expect him to live another three months. Gillis says he has lost 70 pounds over the last six weeks, though he won’t take pain medication. Gillis believes terminal patients should be allowed out of prison, stating, “there’s no need for [holding terminal patients in prison] - who’s a threat to society in here?”
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Locked up and growing old

Updated

There are many reasons why living in prison can turn a person gray. But perhaps the most obvious – growing old – is the one to be most concerned about.

Aging men and women are the fastest-growing population in U.S. prisons, a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found, and prison officials are ill-equipped to provide the appropriate level of care.

That’s not only a humanitarian issue; it’s also a budgetary crisis.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the cost of confining prisoners older than 50 are about double the annual cost for younger inmates. Those expenses only go up with age and the illnesses that follow.

Though prisoners older than 65 or suffering from terminal diseases can apply for early release, the Justice Department inspector general’s report found last year that the Bureau of Prisons’ compassionate release program had been “poorly managed and implemented inconsistently.” Most inmates awaiting early release end up dying behind bars.

Between 2007 and 2010, the number of US state and federal prisoners age 65 or over grew at 94 times the rate of the total prison population, HRW’s report found. Those numbers would continue to rise, the release warned, unless the Justice Department reformed “tough on crime” policies, such as mandatory minimum sentences.

“US corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars,” said Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, in a statement. “How are justice and public safety served by the continued incarceration of men and women whose bodies and minds have been whittled away by age?”