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March|April 2004
The Problem of Prison Rape By Daniel Brook
Captive of the System By Jennifer Gonnerman
Lifers By Sasha Abramsky
The Last Supper By Brian Price
The Cuckoo's Nest By John Douglas
The Tinderbox By Don Cabana


Life sentences are given to convicts who are said to be beyond rehabilitation, but the warden of Louisiana's Angola Prison says most of his aging charges have long since gone through "criminal menopause." What should we do with the growing number of elderly prisoners who've left their criminal selves behind?

By Sasha Abramsky

Deep inside the perimeter of Louisiana's Angola Prison lies Lake Killarney, a muddy expanse of water disturbed by the protruding stumps of dying trees. A short distance away, along bumpy lanes that wrinkle the flat landscape, are two cemeteries rimmed by white picket fences. Point Lookout One, the older cemetery, holds 350 graves. Its grass is lined with simple white concrete crosses. Next to it is Point Lookout Two. The newly opened burial ground is nearly empty now, but over the years it will fill up with the bodies of those who have lived and died as prisoners of Angola.

Someday, the maximum-security prison 50 miles north of Baton Rouge will likely need a third cemetery, for Angola has more prisoners who will never be released than any other prison in America. Of the more than 5,000 inmates living there, about 90 percent are either officially or effectively serving life sentences.

To make their burials more humane, Warden Burl Cain, who was appointed nine years ago but is still called "the new warden," recently had the prison's woodshop build an antique-style hearse. Drawn by horses raised on the prison's farm, the hearse bears the wooden coffins of departed inmates to Point Lookout Two. Internment at Angola is the coda to the fettered lives of inmates whose families have cut off ties with them or cannot afford a funeral for them outside the prison grounds. "Today they know that after death they will be treated with dignity," said Richard Stalder, the commissioner of Louisiana's Department of Corrections. "Now, being buried at Angola has the element, 'This is where I spent the last 30 or 40 years. This is where my friends are.' "

But the prisoners don't feel the peace of mind that Stalder holds out for them. Instead, they imagine that somehow their fate will be different. "We all live with the hope of getting out of here," said Tommy Floyd, a man whose skinny, almost college-boy appearance belies his status as a convicted murderer. Floyd is 29. Convicted of killing a man during a robbery, he came to Angola seven years ago, after spending five years in a parish jail. His father died the week before Floyd was sentenced. Floyd is slated to spend the rest of his life on the inside, but he can't let himself believe that will happen. "If is one of our main words. If we get out. Since I've been here, one skill I've become a master at is evading reality."

THE U.S. SUPREME COURT UPHELD THE CONSTITUTIONALITY of life without parole, or LWOP, in 1974. Yet for two decades after that, Louisiana was one of the few states in the country to give jurors or judges the option of imposing the sentence, also known as "natural life." In most other states, even the worst offenders were not sentenced to permanent incarceration.

Today, however, life without parole has spread across the country. In many places, jurors in capital cases have only two choices of punishment for those they find guilty: execution or permanent imprisonment. Thirty-five of the 38 states that have the death penalty also have LWOP, as do 11 of the 12 states that don't. The sentence is an option in the District of Columbia and under federal law as well.

The LWOP movement gained momentum a decade ago. In 1993, the Supreme Court said that jurors in capital cases must be told if they have the option of sentencing a defendant to LWOP rather than execution. Law-and-order supporters and victims' rights groups liked the harshness of the sentence, and many liberals embraced LWOP as a politically viable alternative to the death penalty in heinous murder cases. "It's a practical alternative to the death penalty that the public may be willing to accept," said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, based in Washington, D.C. "Having a stated alternative that sounds tough makes a big difference."

Dieter is right. A study in Georgia in the early 1990s, conducted by researchers from Northeastern University's Capital Jury Project, showed that about 60 percent of jurors thought criminals sentenced to life but eligible for parole would be back out on the streets within seven years—though most lifers at the time would have spent at least 15 years in prison. Current polls show the number of death penalty supporters dropping from as high as 80 percent to 30 percent when respondents are given the option of sentencing a convicted murderer to LWOP. Tellingly, more than half of jurors who have already voted in favor of an execution said that they would prefer to give a sentence of permanent incarceration. In other words, if people really believe that a life sentence means just that, their views on the death penalty become more nuanced. In Texas, the death penalty capital of America, conservative legislators have blocked attempts to give juries a natural-life option out of fear that it would water down public support for executions.

Opponents of LWOP, however, argue that its finality constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. They point out that most European countries have discarded lifelong imprisonment in almost all cases. "I'm not a particularly religious person, but my understanding is the Christian religion is based on forgiveness and redemption, which isn't evidenced when you sentence someone to life without parole," said Robert Bohm, a University of Central Florida sociologist. "There ought to be some review after a reasonable period of time, say 25 to 30 years."

Yet a life sentence with no possibility of release has inherent appeal as a means of retribution. As they grow old behind bars, the very infirmity of multiple murderers, war criminals, or sensational thrill killers like Charles Manson serves to make their evil seem banal. The nonagenarian image of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's one-time deputy, doddering around in Spandau Prison comes to mind. It's an image that symbolizes the power of the criminal justice system to bring the strong and feared to their knees.

The philosophical argument for LWOP dates from the 18th century, according to Hugo Bedau, a retired philosophy professor at Tufts University. The founder of modern criminology, Cesare Beccaria, and the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who both opposed the death penalty, argued instead that certain criminals should be permanently segregated from society because they cannot be redeemed and pose an ongoing danger.

That argument still resonates. "If it snuffs out the hope and motivation for rehabilitation for some folks, you've got to balance that against society's aim to keep some folks who aren't going to be rehabilitated off the streets," said Julian H. Wright Jr., a lawyer who has written about life sentences. The tacit assumption is that there are people who are not fit to live among us—because they're psychopathic, incapable of remorse, or unable to rein in their violent impulses. Few of us would trust someone like Manson enough to give him another chance on the outside, no matter what proof he offered of self-improvement.

But LWOP is hardly reserved for multiple murders or other extreme cases. About 150 of Louisiana's 3,800 natural lifers were convicted of dealing heroin, most of them low-level dealers rather than kingpins. New York's Rockefeller laws also impose punishments for drug offenders that often operate as life sentences. Again, the harshest punishments often go to street dealers and mules who don't have much information about the drug world to give prosecutors in exchange for a lower sentence. Oklahoma occasionally sends those convicted of low-level marijuana offenses away for life. California's "Three Strikes" law has sent away for effective life terms thousands of people with two serious felonies and a nonviolent third one, like shoplifting, drug possession, or burglary. Similar rules apply in Alabama, where more than 1,300 of the state's nearly 28,000 prisoners are serving LWOP. Their numbers include habitual offenders serving life terms because of a marijuana charge. Florida has a "10-20-Life" law, which establishes a series of harsh, gradated sentences for defendants who use a gun to commit their crimes and which has put hundreds of criminals in prison for the rest of their lives.

As a result, the number of people in prison for life has ballooned. The inmate population more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2000 as the nation's drug laws tightened. The proportion of lifers in the prison population remained constant, at 9 percent, but their numbers rose along with the total. At the end of 2001, there were about 86,000 prisoners in America serving life terms, compared to about half that number 15 years ago. The federal government's Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn't track how many lifers aren't eligible for parole. But given how many states have adopted LWOP or sentencing policies with the same effect, it's clear that a significant percentage of lifers will never be released.

That's unfortunate. Because if Angola shows anything, it's the possibility of redemption. Most of the men who will die in the prison entered it as teenagers or young men. Over the decades there, some of them change so much that they leave their criminal selves behind. They grow up, make friends, and sometimes earn the respect of other inmates and corrections officials. Then there is the tendency of many convicts in their 40s or 50s to lose the itch—or the wherewithal—to commit new crimes. Warden Cain calls this effect of aging "criminal menopause," prisoners told me. The guards see it at work too. "Seventy percent of these guys, you'd never see them again if you released them back to society," confided one correctional officer about the lifers on his watch.

TO GET TO ANGOLA, YOU DRIVE 20 MILES OFF THE HIGHWAY, past a sign to Solitude, past a landscape of old plantations, trailers, and broken-down wooden shacks, deep into the verdant, swampy Delta. Perched above the Mississippi River, the 18,000-acre penitentiary is known as "The Farm," a nickname that served as the title of a celebrated 1998 documentary about the prison. It holds more than 5,000 prisoners, more than three-quarters of whom are African-American. Its most famous inmate is Wilbert Rideau, a black man convicted of killing a white woman in the 1960s, who has become an acclaimed writer and speaker on national television and radio about prison life and criminal justice policy.

Sentenced to hard labor, most of Angola's lifers work in the fields abutting the Mississippi. They grow corn, potatoes, squash, and soybeans—four million pounds a year, harvested to feed prisoners across Louisiana. The prisoners usually earn 4 cents an hour and are guarded by horseback-riding, gun-toting officers. In the past five years, only two inmates have succeeded in escaping, and both were recaptured soon afterward.

Inmates think all the time about the world they can't get to, though. Jerry Francis returns in his mind to New Orleans and his last day of freedom 28 years ago. "May 28, 1976. That's the day I got arrested. The 27th was the last day I enjoyed. I was in the West End Park barbecuing. I was free, enjoying myself. I didn't have to worry about no guard whistling at me."

Francis, who is African-American, looks like he could have been a jazz musician. He has a salt-and-pepper mustache, a dab of hair under his lower lip, and a glasses case poking out of his left chest pocket. He wears blue jeans and a black roll-down woolen hat.

Francis was 17 when he was sentenced to 99 years for armed robbery. He has spent his decades in prison reading, studying, and working with dying inmates in the prison's hospice. Like the other hospice volunteers I interviewed, he wore a purple T-shirt with the message "Helping Others Share their Pain Inside Correctional Environment (HOSPICE)." Francis works to keep busy, yet he is acutely aware that he is living in a place and at a tempo isolated from the broader world. "When I
first came to prison," he recalled, "it was like stepping back into a time capsule. I can't feel it now because I'm a part of it. People use language like 'hootenanny' and I don't even know what they're saying."

Of the 18 hospice volunteers at Angola, 14 are serving life sentences. Some arrived at this work after the deaths of family members outside prison; others have themselves been sick and wanted to help inmates suffering from more serious illnesses; still others enjoy feeling needed. The volunteers learn basic nursing skills. They feed and change dying inmates, talk with them when they're scared to sleep, and write letters for them. When a patient's death nears, the inmates caring for him stay nearby 24 hours a day. "My first patient was a real experience," said Francis's friend, Raymond Flank. "I'd never done that for another man—washing a guy, sitting with him for hours. Anything he wanted, I was at his command. It made me feel good. It's a chapter in my life. A whole book."

The hospice volunteers form a tight-knit group, drawn together by the gratification of caring for sick peers and by the loss they feel after each patient's death. Some are taken around the state to lecture at other prisons and to groups of young people thought to be at risk of becoming criminals. Their guards say they are among the most rehabilitated prisoners in America. "They've found moral rehabilitation—when you change your heart and you know the things you did to get to prison are wrong," said Cathy Fontinot, Angola's assistant warden. "They've seen how death affects people, and they live the rest of their lives knowing that's the same pain they caused somebody."

Having served more than 20 years of his sentence, Jerry Francis became eligible for parole when he turned 45 last year. He went before Louisiana's parole board in October. But the board can only grant parole by a unanimous decision. Heavily influenced by the victims' rights movement, they hardly ever do. "They denied me," Francis said. "I did everything I could in this community—because this is a community."

These days, Francis, like many of the lifers with whom I spoke, has turned to faith for sustenance. "I have an ultimate understanding that man is not in control of what happens on the face of the earth," he said. "If I die here, that's the state God wanted me to die in." Still, fatalism hasn't entirely quieted his desire for freedom. "I'll never stop trying to get out of this place. It's a hurting thing to be in prison every day of your life."

Ted Durban works alongside Francis in the hospice. Durban started volunteering to care for a friend who had cancer. "I was there when he died," he said quietly. He's 45, but his flowing white sage's beard makes him look closer to 70. He doesn't remember exactly when he was convicted of two counts of armed robbery in the late 1980s. "I've been in and out since I was 18," he said of his overall prison record. "I don't pay attention to time."

Durban, who is white, is serving a sentence of 145 years. While other prisoners rely on family visits, phone calls, and letters for mental nourishment, his world has shrunk to the walls of Angola. "I don't get any visits no more," he said. "My mother's bedridden. She'll be leaving us soon. I don't think about being out no more. I have no outside support. They're not going to parole me given my record. I'm home, basically. Every person who dies in there [the prison hospice], I see a little bit of myself in 'em."

TWO HUNDRED MILES NORTH OF ANGOLA, in the Forcht Wade Correctional Center, Floyd Williams is serving life for a crime he committed in 1962. Then, at the age of 15, he raped an elderly woman in the Louisiana cotton fields. Williams is black and his victim was white. Given the time and place, he was lucky not to have been lynched, Warden Anthony Batson said crudely but matter-of-factly.

Williams's parents weren't in court with him when the judge handed down a sentence of "Natural life, hard labor." He was sent to Angola, where he spent decades. Other inmates there helped him understand the import of his sentence. "An old man sat me down and said, 'How much time have you got?' I said, 'I got a life sentence.' He said, 'Do you know what that means?' 'No.' 'Well, you've got a lot of time to play with.' I made it through with people helping me to grow up."

Now 56 himself, Williams is deemed a low security risk. So he was recently moved to Forcht Wade, which has a high concentration of elderly inmates. It's his job to groom and care for the prison's bloodhounds and weapons-sniffing dogs. Each of the eight animals cost more than their keeper will earn in his lifetime.

Surrounded by a sweet-smelling forest on the edge of the prison's grounds, Williams seems almost at peace as he works with the animals, which are caged in kennels with chicken wire doors. He has been in prison so long that he has to struggle to remember the details of life outside.

Resting on a wooden chair near the kennels, mosquitoes buzzing around his head and one eye bloodshot, he looked at the nearby trees as he pondered the question. "I remember a little," he said finally. "Picking cotton. My people had me in the fields. I had to work. I had a flattop hair style with a little conk to make the hair slick back a little bit. Wore Levi's. My bebop cap—two-tone color, red and white and some stripes on it. Cowboy hat too. But mostly I growed up in Angola."

Over the years, Williams has left prison grounds only for family funerals. The last one was his brother's, in 1998. He speaks on the phone occasionally with a church lady who befriended him several years ago. He hasn't been able to call his mother since her phone got cut off. He hasn't had a visitor in years. "My mom, she live in Shreveport now. I got one sister. No sir, I haven't seen her since 1972."

It's hard to say whether Williams is "rehabilitated," or what exactly that would mean. But his guards trust their longtime charge to roam the prison and tend to attack dogs. "I don't think he'd hurt anybody again," Warden Batson said.

Still, four governors have turned down Williams's application for a commutation of his sentence. Batson thinks that at heart, Williams may be relieved to be staying where he is. "I don't think he wants to go home," the warden said. "He would have diffi
culty functioning outside of prison." It sounds like paternalism, but maybe Batson is right. After all, what does a 56-year-old man who has been in prison since the age of 15 have to go home to?

Since 1996, an average of 25 inmates have died at Angola each year. Their mean age is 55, a year younger than Williams is now. State lawmakers recently began considering a proposal to make parole available to 250 inmates convicted of heroin possession who have completed at least 40 years of a LWOP sentence. That showing of mercy, if it comes, would slow the pace of burials at Point Lookout Two. But by 2006, Angola expects to house about 800 inmates who will have been in prison for more than 25 years. The new cemetery will begin to fill with the bodies of longtime inmates, driven there by horse-driven hearse.

Prison Grays

THE DORMITORIES ARE LINED WITH BEDS at Elm Hall in the California Institution for Men. Young gang members paralyzed in shootings lie here. So do many elderly prisoners. Some are attached to oxygen tanks. Others have wheelchairs or walkers parked beside them. The staff remembers one old man, convicted of killing his wife in the 1930s, who had a severe stroke and lingered for 10 years before he died. Other Elm Hall inmates have congestive heart failure, kidney failure, or cancer.

Before most lifers die in prison, they grow old, get sick, and must be cared for. "One of the most challenging aspects of an increasingly aging population will be dealing with Alzheimer's disease (AD) and other age related dementias," according to an internal memo circulated by the California Department of Corrections. The document detailed other day-to-day demands: "Older persons often need softer, blander, moister food; food cut in smaller pieces; more colorful foods to stimulate appetite; smaller portions served more often; and a longer time for eating." The department's data shows that nearly a quarter of California's elderly prisoners need help bathing themselves, 15 percent need help getting dressed, and 12 percent are incontinent.

To cope with these needs, about one-third of the states now operate separate prisons or prison wings for geriatric and infirm inmates. At the correctional medical facility of Forcht Wade, La., old men do their "hard labor" in workshops, repairing shoes and making wooden toys for needy children. A Florida facility for elderly inmates is slated to become a training venue for medical students from Nova Southeastern University who want to specialize in geriatric care.

There are increasing numbers of elderly prisoners to fill the new geriatric wards. In California, 2,280 prisoners were older than 55 in 1993; five years later, when the California Department of Corrections commissioned an internal study about aging, the number had nearly doubled. Louisiana has more than 3,321 inmates who are 50 or over, 9 percent of the total prison population. At the end of 2002, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that at least 39,000 inmates nationwide were over the age of 55. Because of the increasing length of many sentences, their number will, in all likelihood, skyrocket over the next 10 years.

The rule of thumb among prison medical staff is that inmates (and people who cycle in and out of prison) tend to age 10 to 20 years faster over the course of their lifetimes than their peers. Often the cause is a combination of factors: years of drug and alcohol abuse, unhealthy lifestyles on the outside, and stressful living conditions in prison. Prisons with large numbers of inmates in their 50s and 60s tend to have huge healthcare costs.

Forcht Wade's administrators estimate that it costs an average of $60,000 per year to house each of the nearly 100 inmates who are over the age of 50. Costs are even higher in states with higher wages for correctional staff and medical personnel. Nationally, the average cost of housing and caring for a geriatric inmate is estimated at $69,000 a year. California sends prisoners needing hospital care out to community health facilities for treatment; the average cost of such hospitalization is $25,000 for an inmate over 55, compared to $14,000 for a younger sick prisoner. And the older prisoners account for 8 percent of the out-patients, although they make up only 4 percent of the total prison population.

Inside prison, healthcare is often disturbingly bad. Still, many inmates are getting regular access to nonemergency health services for the first time. Prisons are required to treat life-threatening illnesses, contagious diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis, serious mental illnesses, and other major medical conditions. While the exact parameters of mandated care are fuzzy, numerous lawsuits have won prisoners access to doctors, nurses, psychiatric personnel, and appropriate medications.

David Mackey, a 57-year-old convicted murderer, was dying of lung cancer when I visited Angola in November. Housed in a private room and nursed by Ted Durban, another inmate, Mackey weighed about 100 pounds; he could not stretch out in his bed without help or breathe for more than a few minutes without oxygen. His cheeks were hollowed out, the bones partially hidden by a scraggly white beard and covered by paper-thin skin. "We're dead anyway," he said. "We're dead people. Why can't we go home to die with our families instead of dying here?" Occasionally, as a humanitarian gesture, a Louisiana lifer who is clearly close to death has been granted medical furlough. Mackey's application was recently turned down.

—Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and the author of Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation.

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