Aging prisoner program growing

CARSON CITY -- So-called "truth in sentencing" laws have produced a problem lawmakers didn't anticipate when they increased sentences for most serious crimes: a burgeoning population of senior citizen inmates.

Some of the inmates at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in south Carson City are in their 80s now.

Those inmates not only have more medical issues but mobility problems and emotional needs that differ from those of other inmates. In addition, they are often victimized by younger, more violent prisoners.

Allen Soules, one of the inmates who works on wheelchairs for men in the program, said there are 150 chairs on the yard at the correctional center.

Program director Mary Harrison said everyone agreed the Nevada corrections system needed a geriatric program.

"When I walked in here, there were all these men sitting in wheelchairs, sleeping," she said. "But nobody was stepping up to the plate to get things started."

So, in 2003, she did, creating the program now labeled True Grit.

The original 15 in the group at High Desert Prison in Southern Nevada has grown to 135 at Northern Nevada Correctional Center, all over 60 years old. NNCC, where the system's medical center is located, is a better fit, she said. At least 265 inmates have gone through True Grit.

She said depression also is a serious problem for older inmates.

"It's sad," she said. "These guys are elderly, and they don't have a lot of visitors."

She said the program is "designed to provide humane care, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being."

That means everyone has to participate in a variety of activities such as crafts, a drama group and choir groups. Harrison said there's also a strong veterans group, since some 70 percent of the True Grit inmates are ex-military.

There are grooming and hygiene standards, she said, because "scruffy beards and long hair don't look healthy."

"We're not soft on anybody," Harrison said.

The men, all in the same stage of life, help motivate each other and combat depression.

And it's working. She said that not only were the inmates not doing anything when the program started, but many were on psychotropic medication. Now, she said, only one man in the program is on those drugs.

"If you can be active, that works better than medication," she said. "Our men look better than when they came in."

Correctional Officer Nicholas Lazzarino described it as "a total health program."

Fellow officer John Henley agreed: "Really what you're watching out for is their health. A lot of it's hygiene."

Soules and inmate Hal Shaw operate one of the keys to keeping the inmates healthy and active: the wheelchair repair "chop shop."

"We actually bring money into the state, because our wheelchairs are all donated," Soules said.

Shaw said that saves the state because, without the work they do, the state would have to provide inmates with chairs costing about $1,800 apiece.

They said they fix and rebuild everything on the chairs but are always looking for donations.

The biggest problem: wheel bearings.

"Most of these wheels are designed for clinical situations," Soules said. "Smooth floors. Out here it's asphalt, dirt. It tears them up, ruins the bearings."

They also appear in skits designed to help other inmates understand the problems faced by inmates in wheelchairs, simple things such as getting in and out of the shower. They point out that the chairs are often a tool to help get inmates back on their feet so they don't need them anymore.

"There are attitudes," Harrison said. "People don't like to be around people in wheelchairs, people who are ill."

The program also helps protect older inmates from being taken advantage of or victimized.

"Some guys were paying 'rent,' paying for somebody to help them," Harrison said.

She said one inmate with money outside was paying $70 a week in rent to an abusive roommate.

Associate Warden Lisa Walsh agreed, saying there are predators on the yard.

"Here, they get to live together. They're not as victimized."