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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Growing old behind bars

The number of older prisoners in Virginia has more than doubled in the past 10 years, creating new issues for the state's prison system.

CAPRON Winter sunshine slices through a narrow security window and falls on Aloysius Joseph Beyrer's white hair, slight shoulders and the linen covering his fractured hip.

Like the rest of the country, Virginia is coping with a growing number of aging inmates. Beyrer, 84, is the state's oldest and his home, the Deerfield Correctional Center, focuses on geriatric inmates.

In 1999, Virginia had 2,015 prisoners 50 or older. Today, there are almost 4,700, and by 2011, state officials expect there to be 5,057.

A drop in the number of paroles granted to inmates who remain eligible is a factor in Virginia's increasing number of older inmates. Truth-in-sentencing reforms that in 1995 led to stiffer, no-parole sentences for violent crimes are expected to contribute to Virginia's aging prison population in coming years.

At Deerfield, wheelchairs and walkers line aisles in the secured assisted-living dormitory, where it would be easy to confuse the frail residents with those in nursing homes. But it would be a mistake to do so.

Beyrer, a veteran of prisons in Virginia and elsewhere, thinks Deerfield, "is pretty good," though security comes first there, even for octogenarians like Beyrer, who is serving 100 years for sex crimes. The prison's goal is to provide older inmates care and some dignity, not freedom.

The warden, Keith W. Davis, who has a master's degree in social work, makes it clear he is not running a spa for the golden years. "This is not a perfect world. We do not have unlimited resources," he said.

Even with a blank check to meet all their medical and mental-health needs, Davis said no one wants to grow old or die in a prison. "That's a big challenge for the staff. . . . We do what we can do, but we can't cure oldness," he said.

"Offenders are like the rest of us. We get old, we get ill, we die," he said. Deerfield provides a continuing-care community, he said, "so they can reach what we believe is their fullest potential -- body, mind and soul."

. . .

Experts say substance abuse, little or no health care before imprisonment and the stress of living behind bars can leave a 50-year-old inmate physiologically 10 to 15 years older than his chronological age.

In general, older inmates require more supervision and medical and mental-health care, as well as special diets, mobility aids and special housing.

Deerfield, Virginia's only prison dedicated to geriatric inmates and inmates with special medical needs, accommodates 1,080 inmates, 90 of them in wheelchairs and 65 percent over the age of 50.

Other older inmates and older female inmates are in prisons such as the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and the Greensville and Powhatan correctional centers.

Critics point out that many older inmates are far less likely to commit new crimes and could be released at great savings. Prison officials, however, believe their care would largely be at public expense in or out of prison.

And though older people are less likely to commit crimes, some still do. Beyrer was 67 when he was convicted in Virginia Beach of statutory rape, aggravated sexual battery and forcible sodomy.

Deerfield's head nurse, Bonita Badgett, said 800 of the inmates there have at least one chronic medical condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma. The prison psychiatrist, Dr. Amit Shah, said the major problem he treats is depression. [Mark Godsey]

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