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February 9, 2009 -- New America Media (US)

Golden Girls Behind Bars

Aging Prisoners Yearn for Freedom

By Viji Sundaram, New America Media

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


CORONA, Calif. -- Last month, prisoner Number W 41465 passed away, her greatest wish unfulfilled: to die a free person.

Eighty-eight years old, nearly blind and deaf, her mind enfeebled by Alzheimer's and in the terminal stages of kidney failure, Helen Loheac had hoped to spend her last days at Crossroads, Inc., a transitional home for formerly incarcerated women in Claremont, Calif. For 10 years, Crossroads had been waiting to take her in.

But a few months ago, when Loheac shuffled before the parole board seeking compassionate release, after serving nearly 19 years behind bars on a conspiracy-to-murder conviction, the board told her she would be a risk to public safety if she were freed.

On Jan. 5, Loheac, the oldest female inmate in California's prison system, died of pneumonia in a hospital near the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, where she had been incarcerated. She was shackled at her waist and ankles, two guards at her bedside.

Loheac, known for her sharp tongue and wit, has become the poster person for the widespread practice in California's prisons of inhumanely incarcerating the elderly, some of whose bodies are so withered that even simple daily chores become overwhelming.

"It's a terrible injustice, what's going on in those prisons," said Gloria Killian, a former inmate of the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona, and now a fierce prisoners' rights advocate. "There's nothing worse than being sick and being in prison.

"These people are not a threat to society. They couldn't hurt a fly if they wanted to. And besides, it's so expensive to keep them incarcerated."

Inmates over age 55 cost taxpayers two to three times the cost of younger prisoners, who average $35,000 a year. Dee Mariano, 59, said that in the 11 years she spent in California prisons, the state spent about $70,000 a year on medications and treatment for her chronic lung disease and degenerative bone disease. Now, it costs her only $17,000, with the state and federal governments sharing the cost.

"They were spending about $250,000 a year on Helen, if you include the cost of two prison guards who would always accompany her when she went to the hospital for dialysis about three times a week," said Killian, who is about to launch the Helen Loheac Memorial Release Project to help elderly women prisoners live and die in dignity.

Prisoners' rights groups say there is a reluctance on the part of the State Board of Prison Terms to release prisoners when they are due for parole, in clear violation of the California Penal Code.

"The board generally finds no more than 4 percent of the prisoners suitable for parole," said Marisa Gonzales, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based non-profit, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC).

The few who get the nod from the board then must be approved for parole by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, they say, wants to please victims' rights groups and be viewed as tough on crime.

"The board gives us a release date, and the governor takes it away," said Jane Benson, 60, a prisoner of 22 years at CIW, who succeeded in persuading the parole board to free her the fourth time she came up for parole. But she said her luck ran out when her papers reached the governor's desk.

Crossroads executive director Sister Terry Dodge believes that denying older women parole after they've done their time "is just political.

"They mature out of criminal behavior," she said.

Indeed, federal studies show that the recidivism rate for prisoners over 55 is between 2 and 4 percent, according to Heidi Strupp, an advocacy coordinator with LSPC.

Meanwhile, the graying of the prison population mirrors that of the general population. With tougher sentencing laws, it is projected that by 2030 there will be 33,000 geriatric prisoners in California alone, costing the state at least a $1 billion a year. There are currently 532 women 55 and over in the state's three prisons -- CIF, Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) and CCWF.

Yet, "those prisons aren't geared to the needs and vulnerabilities of older people," said Strupp.

Two years ago, Strupp contributed to a study of older prisoners in California. The study, released by the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center, found that older women were less healthy than the general population, reporting higher rates of hypertension, arthritis, asthma and other lung diseases.

Despite a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that established that inmates have a constitutional right to health care, they don't always have ready access to it.

A federal judge in 2006 appointed a receiver to oversee California's prison health care system, after finding that an average of one inmate a week was dying of neglect or malpractice.

Dee Mariano, who did time in all three California women's prisons before she was released in 2004, said she used to see her fellow prisoners with cancer and hepatitis treated with Tylenol and Motrin. "I saw one woman with throat cancer, who kept getting denied parole, fall into her own blood and die," Mariano said.

"I saw another woman get down to her knees and beg for morphine," she said. "It was disgusting. When you're in prison, all you want is to be able to die with dignity."

On a recent evening at the CIW in Corona, some 50 or so "golden girls" -- what the incarcerated over 55 call themselves here -- gathered in a spacious hall for their monthly two-hour meeting, under the watchful eyes of two prison guards. Corona has a total of 137 inmates who are over 55.

"Any time you can get a support group like this, that is a coping mechanism in and of itself," said CIW's chief psychologist Dr. Cristal Bernous. The unique program is a collaborative effort between inmates and the administration, according to Robert Patterson, the prison's public information officer.

Most wore drab, light gray prison regulation sweatsuits. Many were lifers, convicted of crimes ranging from murder to drug-related offenses to kidnapping for ransom. Some had landed in prison for non-violent crimes under the three strikes law.

Some had heart disease; others suffered from osteoporosis, arthritis or diabetes. Many had asthma and other lung diseases. Many said they were depressed, a common enough health problem for those behind bars.

Prison officials acknowledge that inmates age faster than the general population primarily because of stress, but also because of poor medical care while incarcerated and even before they ended up in prison, as well as prior drug use.

"The older you get, the more stressful it is," said Golden Girl Glenda Crosley, 65, who's been incarcerated for 21 years. "Most of us have high blood pressure. The system spends a lot on medications to control it, but don't do anything to prevent it."
DonnaDonna Jelnic, 64, leads the monthly meeting for "golden girls."
Chairwoman Donna Jelnic, 64, trim, her auburn shoulder-length hair neatly coiffed and her eyes lined with mascara, reminded them about the upcoming elections for board positions. She gave them an update on the status of the lawsuit against Prop. 9, a ballot initiative approved by voters last November that will expand the legal rights of crime victims at the expense, prisoner advocates say, of many of the rights of prisoners and parolees. She also urged the women to attend an upcoming writ writing workshop that Warden Dawn S. Davison had arranged.

As prisons go, CIW is one of the better run prison facilities in California, former and current inmates assert. Thanks to some compassionate policies Davison has introduced since she took over four years ago, inmates over 55 can opt for a lower bunk in their cell, get two blankets and two pillows instead of the customary one, and endure shorter waits on the cafeteria and "pill" lines.

"Dawn sees rehabilitation possibilities, unlike officials at the other two facilities," Sister Dodge said. "But I am not saying CIW is a piece of cake. It's still a prison."

At the CIW, every cell has only two bunks. In the CCWF, on the other hand, designed for 4,000, but which houses around 5,000, there are three-tier bunks in the gymnasium, which accommodates the overflow, said Mariano, who was transferred there from CIW because of her extensive medical problems. CCWF is the only facility with a medical unit.

"I've seen 70- and 80-year-old women with arthritis trying to crawl up to the upper bunks," she said.

Killian, who founded Action Committee for Women in Prison shortly after she was exonerated in 2003, said, "Prisoners who come back from surgery are made to go up to the upper bunks."

As California's elderly prison population burgeons, calls for prison reform are growing louder. State Sen. Gloria Romero, former chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, believes that prison officials should do a risk assessment and release the least risky prisoners.

Dodge and other activists heartily agree. Loheac, they say, was one of those who should have come out long ago.

"She was a tiny old woman who just wanted to be released," said Killian.

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