PRESTONSBURG - After being fingerprinted and photographed, 87-year-old Dottie Neeley sat quietly in the local jail, imprisoned as much by the tubing from her oxygen tank as the concrete and steel surrounding her.
The elderly woman who sometimes uses a wheelchair is among a growing number of senior citizens charged in a crackdown on the illegal trade of prescription drugs, a crime that authorities say is rampant in the mountains of central Appalachia.
Floyd County jailer Roger Webb said seniors have a ready market for their prescription pills, especially painkillers, and some may be succumbing to the temptation of illegally selling their medications.
"When a person is on Social Security, drawing $500 a month, and they can sell their pain pills for $10 apiece, they'll take half of them for themselves and sell the other half to pay their electric bills or buy groceries," Webb said.
Since April 2004, the anti-drug task force Operation UNITE has charged more than 40 people 60 or older with selling drugs in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
It's a recent trend that Webb said has been growing over the past five years, since police began their crackdown on illegal sales of prescription drugs.
"It used to be a rare occasion to have an elderly inmate," Webb said. "Five years ago it was a rarity."
Dan Smoot, a former state police drug detective who heads the task force, said the senior citizens being charged aren't always people struggling to put food on the table.
"Most of the elderly we arrest are merely continuing a family tradition," he said. "It has been part of their culture for a long time." Webb said local jails are having to bear the increased cost of caring for aging inmates.
"You've got to give them more attention," he said. "It's putting a strain on my deputies. We're understaffed anyway. You've got to get them doctors, and meet their medical needs."
In nearby Pike County, jailer Rodney Scott said the overall increase in elderly inmates is small, but noticeable.
He said senior citizens have more health problems than younger inmates, which means they require more time and attention from his staff.
The Rev. Doug Abner, pastor of Community Church in Manchester and an anti-drug crusader, said seniors may not understand the seriousness of selling prescription drugs.
"They justify it because they're having a hard time financially," he said. "Left to ourselves, we can justify anything, but they're really part of the problem."
Neeley, the 87-year-old who was arrested along with her son and his girlfriend, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of trafficking in prescription drugs and marijuana.
However, a prosecutor has agreed to a five-year sentence and has promised not to oppose "shock probation" if Neeley enters a guilty plea at her next scheduled court appearance.
Under shock probation, a defendant who is unlikely to repeat the crime is released from prison after getting a brief taste of life behind bars.
Her defense attorney, Terry Jacobs, said the plea bargain would be a gamble. He said if the judge doesn't grant the motion for shock probation, Neeley could die in prison.
"It's been our position all along that six months is a death sentence for her," Jacobs said.
In a telephone interview, Neeley said she suffers from emphysema and asthma, and uses oxygen daily. She said she was shocked when police arrived to arrest her, making the 4-foot 8-inch, 120-pound woman walk from her house to a cruiser.
"I had to hold my hands up all the way," she said. "They wouldn't let me hold them down." Neeley said she doesn't know why she was included in the roundup of drug dealers last December.
"I was always against drugs," she said.
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