Respect Life Month
There was an old man, he lived in the lockup
Wisconsin faces a growing number of older prisoners
By Joanne Flemming
A prisoner's greatest fear is that he will die alone in prison without family and friends.
This fear, according to chaplains at Oshkosh Correctional Institution and Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupan, is perhaps the major issue facing older prisoners in Wisconsin's correctional system. This is especially so for those with terminal illnesses,
"Family may be the only motivation (prisoners have) for going on and surviving the prison experience," said Brooks Feldmann, corrections unit supervisor for Unit P at Oshkosh.
Unit P houses special needs inmates, including the elderly, ill and handicapped. It is the unit closest to the prison's health services facilities. "Older inmates" are those 50 years old and above.
According to Feldmann, while staff encourage inmates to keep up contact with family, the final decision is the inmate's. Sr. Susan Clark, SSND, chaplain at Oshkosh, and Paul Rogers, Catholic chaplain at Dodge, agree. They say some prisoners choose to break off family contact. In other cases, families break off with them.
This leaves them with only prison contacts as their only human contact. This can be both good and bad.
When an inmate is dying alone, his fears can affect the whole unit, both other prisoners and staff, said Rogers. But, Sr. Clark adds, she has also seen the unit support an inmate dying from cancer with their prayers when he had no family contact.
"They really do reach out to each other in that situation when they see a person very much in need," she said.
Support for the terminally ill is also available through the hospice program at Dodge, Sr. Clark added.
For those inmates who do maintain family contact, Oshkosh offers marriage counseling and parenting classes to help strengthen those relationships.
Rogers pointed out that there are around 2,500 older prisoners in the state system and 285 at Dodge. Oshkosh has between 400 and 500 according to Feldmann. He and Sr. Clark added that number represents about a quarter of the prison's population.
Unit supervisor Feldmann explained that Oshkosh has more older prisoners than some prisons for several reasons. One, it is handicapped accessible. It also focuses on treating sex offenders, many of whom are older. Oshkosh also has a good health services unit. The overload from the 50-bed state infirmary at Dodge is sent to Oshkosh.
Older prisoners differ from younger. According to Dodge's chaplain, Rogers, "older inmates tend to be a little more mature behavior-wise. They don't get into all the fights the younger groups do."
Other issues facing older inmates include:
Physical health: While some prisoners may be healthy, many are not. Their condition may be due to poor health habits and/or addictions, like alcohol and drugs. Each receives a physical upon entering the correctional system at Dodge's processing center. Those who especially need help are paired with inmate aides who help with personal care or escorting them to the dining hall, health services and elsewhere in the prison.
Personal security: Feldmann noted that because they may be frail and vulnerable, older inmates may be victimized by a "very predatory group." If this happens, they are likely to hide in their cells and even "pay off the guys so they don't get beaten up."
He feels Oshkosh has done a "pretty good job of protecting them." Unit P is separate from other units. One aide is assigned to a group of four or five men and is required to keep a log on the men. This log helps monitor inmates' conditions.
Work: Some elderly inmates need to work, said Feldmann. They don't have family and friends on the outside to send them money. Or they come from a lifestyle in which they are productive. He added that work can even be found for the frail who may be on no work or light work restrictions. They can dust or wash windows.
At Oshkosh, special activities are also organized just to "bring the elderly together so they become their own support group."
They may also be asked to join one of the unit's three knitting groups. There they make 24 cents an hour knitting hats, scarves, mittens, baby items and afghans. The 1,500 items they made last year were donated to community programs such as foster care or shelter homes.
"The inmates themselves really benefit from it because they . . . realize it's a kind of payback for the community," said Feldmann.
Activities: The Fox Valley Visiting Nurses' Association sends therapists twice a week to organize physical activities. A staff member from the prison's recreation department visits the unit one evening a week to teach hobbycrafts.
Compassionate release: Feldmann noted that there used to be more emphasis on this for inmates with terminal illnesses. "But the parole board is less lenient than it used to be," he added.
Whether or not release is granted depends on the nature of the illness and what advice social workers and doctors are giving the parole board, he and Rogers said.
"It takes a lot of consideration," said Rogers. "Just because someone is ill or a quadriplegic doesn't make them any safer."
Spiritual health: Chaplain Rogers believes that older prisoners "show a greater interest in turning their lives around . . . They see that having a strong spiritual life is part of that turnover, that 'change of heart.'" At Dodge Correctional, he sees their practice of their faith as "the key to keeping them out of trouble."