ANNAPOLIS – Nearly every day Richard Wienhold thinks back to the 27- year-old man he used to be — long before his hair turned gray, long before he had to take insulin three times a day.
“I was no good,” he says. “I’m not going to lie. I was angry at the world. I was angry at everybody and everything.”
It was anger that led Wienhold to rob, steal and eventually kill for money.
He was 27 the last time he was free. Now, at 71, he is one of 218 inmates in Maryland prisons over age 60.
While the number of older inmates doesn’t seem like a lot in a system that holds 23,148 people, it’s growing. That growth has brought a struggle for Maryland officials, who must determine how to manage elderly prisoners who often have health problems or are too frail to be mixed in the general prison population.
Maryland is not alone in this dilemma. Last year, Virginia built a special prison for its older inmates. Other states have built special wings and developed programs for the elderly.
Maryland, however, has no formal arrangements for such prisoners. Some of the state’s prisons have learned to accommodate their older inmates. And the idea of starting a geriatric prison was kicked around, but never materialized. Finally, an effort to create a law allowing inmates over 65 to be considered for parole died early in Annapolis.
Meanwhile the number of elderly inmates continues to grow.
“What’s happening in Maryland is happening everywhere,” said Jenni Gainsborough, a policy analyst with The Sentencing Project, a Washington based think-tank. “It’s a national problem. It’s an inevitable consequence because we are putting so many people in prison and keeping them in there for so long.”
According to the Corrections Yearbook, in 1998 there were 976 inmates in Maryland over age 50. They were part of the 83,667 inmates in the United States older than 50. In the next few years, experts expect those numbers to double.
“It certainly is a concern now, but if you look 10 years ahead, the corrections system is going to be devastated,” said Kara Gotsch, a policy coordinator for ACLU’s National Prison Project.
It costs about $25,000 to keep a regular inmate in prison. Elderly inmates cost three times as much, Gotsch said. “This will devastate department of corrections’ budgets.”
Of the 218 elderly prisoners over 60 in Maryland, 26 have impaired memory and 13 are considered senile. Another 38 have heart problems and 14 suffer from lung disease.
While there are no statistical projections of the future numbers of elderly inmates, there are some factors that show the population will grow. Inmates in Maryland serve more of their sentenced time than inmates in neighboring states like Pennsylvania and Virginia, according to a prison spokesman. And the number of prisoners sentenced to life in prison has doubled in the past 10 years. These facts coupled with Gov. Parris Glendening’s refusal to grant parole to inmates serving life sentences mean most of the state’s violent criminals will grow old and die in prison.
Maryland prison officials say they have no good way to deal with the special needs of older prisoners.
Now when inmates become so senile that guards cannot deal with them, they are transferred to one of the prison’s scarce infirmary beds.
“We’ll keep a prisoner if he can’t remember to eat, go to the toilet or to bathe. (But) he doesn’t really need that infirmary bed,” said Barbara A. Boyle, director of Social Work and Addiction Services. “… People occupy hospital beds because there is no way to manage them. It’s like keeping seniors in a hospital in the community because you have nowhere else to send them.”
Keeping elderly prisoners in the infirmary holds up beds for sick prisoners, Boyle said. When another prisoner needs the infirmary bed the elderly one is moved back into the general prison population.
Older inmates are a problem, too, because they’ve become the prey of the younger members of prison society – a reversal of longtime roles. Twenty years ago, experts say, younger prisoners coming into jail looked to older inmates as father figures. This is no longer true.
There are no easy solutions to the problem of older inmates in the prison system, where even the definition of elderly is complex. Only nine states define elderly prisoners, and the ages range from 45 to 70.
“It’s not uncommon to find a man who is 45 but looks 65,” said Anthony Swetz, Maryland director of Inmate Medical Services. Inmates, Swetz said, usually have lived a harder life and develop serious illnesses, like heart and kidney disease, long before other people their age would.
In Maryland, inmates who are 60 and older are considered elderly and are required to have a yearly physical examination. Unless they are confined to a bed or using a wheelchair they must live in the general population of prisoners.
Comptroller William Donald Schaefer advocated creation of a special geriatric prison while he was governor.
“The older prison population is ignored,” he said in a recent interview “It’s a subject we need to look at. Senior prisoners have no one to advocate for them.”
Schaefer’s idea was to convert a building in Baltimore into a small prison for the elderly after a prison official told him about the problem.
“The sentences were getting longer and the prisoners were getting older,” said Bishop Robinson, who was then secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “I had one prisoner who was approaching 90. It just didn’t make sense to continue keeping a prisoner who is so old.”
Robinson thought a geriatric prison would save the state money because all health services would be available in one building. Plus the prison could have less security since old inmates tend to be less violent.
But others argue geriatric prisons are not the answer and states need to decide whether it’s worth it to keep older inmates in prison.
“While some of the special facilities can cut down the cost of keeping inmates, it’s still expensive,” said Barry Holman, director of research and public policy with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.
“The idea of `we are going to build ourselves out of something’ is ridiculous. We simply are not going to be able to build ourselves out of that.”
Swetz, too, believes moving prisoners into a separate building is a bad idea.
“We need to be careful that we don’t take the elderly inmate and create a special place for them,” Swetz said. “There’s been a tendency to take our old people and separate them out. Whenever you take people out of the mainstream you run into problems.”
Removing men like Wienhold from a mainstream prison would mean he wouldn’t benefit from rehabilitative programs that operate only in the main prisons, Swetz said. Plus, not all of the prisoners would want to be completely separated.
Wienhold is serving a life sentence for murder. He works teaching arts and crafts to other inmates, a job he does mainly because he’s too old to do physical labor.
“Now I’ve got sugar diabetes,” he said. “My legs are going bad. I can’t use my legs like I used to. I get insulin three times a day. I don’t think I (have) too many years left.”
When Wienhold came to prison he had a seventh-grade education, he says. He’s proud because he has used his time to earn a high school equivalency diploma and to further educate himself.
“I feel I’ve accomplished something for myself,” Wienhold said. “It makes me feel all right even if other people don’t care.”