The Sick and Elderly in Massachusetts Prisons

Pam Bulluck of the New York Times recently wrote an article entitled: "Prisons grapple with increasing dementia." She was actually talking about prisoners — not the warders, who seem to be demented when it comes to the care and custody of the elderly and disabled. According to Bulluck, California is training other prisoners to pick up the load of caring for the disabled. These specially-trained prisoners are paid $50 a month to ensure the proper care of those prisoners who are no longer able to care for themselves. If not for these specially trained prisoners, the disabled would become prey to an unscrupulous ilk that seem to live on the periphery of every prison in the world.

Massachusetts has an increasing elderly problem that will soon reach epidemic proportions, if something is not done now to stave it off. I wrote to the governor and submitted a proposal for the care and custody of the elderly and infirm. He in turn had the commissioner write to the warden of MCI Shirley, who then answered the proposal by stating they were looking into an alternate custody setting for the elderly and disabled in Massachusetts.

One only needs to peek one's head into MCI Shirley to see the brigade of wheelchairs going to and from chow at each meal or when they call medication line, to fully appreciate the scope of what will soon become an unmanageable problem for both the warders and for those who are unable to care for themselves.

I can cite many cases but for personal experience will cite only my own condition. In 1964, 1965, and 1966 I served with the First Marines in Vietnam as a squad leader. I was wounded a few times, but in the end it was my exposure to Agent Orange that has placed me in a wheelchair for what remains of my life. My lungs are shot. I cannot perform the most basic needs for myself. I cannot even make my bed or bend over to extract anything from my footlocker. I use several inhalers and take nebulizer treatments when it gets really bad. Still, nothing is going to change my condition for the better, except for those few good men who have generously stepped up to the plate to ensure my basic daily needs are taken care of. One guy, in particular, cleans my cell each and every day and makes my bed. He also pushes my wheelchair all over this vast complex, and he gets paid the whopping sum of one dollar a day. He is not in it for the money, even though he has none of his own. He does it because he is who he is. See, I fully understand and appreciate the scope and gravity of what I must face in each and every day as a first-degree lifer. I will die in prison. Getting from this day to my last day is now the struggle I and far too many others find ourselves in.

The number of prisoners 65 and older increased 63% from 2007 to 2010, while the total prison population rose just 0.7%. A recent Human Rights Watch report shows the number of prisoners older than 55 is growing at a rate six times that of the rest of the prison population.

Simply releasing prisoners back into society has legal and regulatory obstacles. Even if those could be surmounted, the prisoner would have no place to go. Old age homes will not take ex-felons, and they could not get insurance, so the question becomes, what do we as a humane society do with these men? The problem is not going away. With mandatory minimums and life without parole, our prison jamming and granny dumping will only get worse.

My father-in-law is 88 years old. During WWII, he was a tank commander in Patton's outfit. He is a tough old bird and stubborn as all hell. He writes to me at lease twice a week and elaborates on all the medical issues he must deal with and how if it gets any worse, he will be unable to afford to pay for his prescription medications. His problem is that his wounds were not severe enough to get him the kind of help he needs from the Veterans Administration. Yet he says he would rather die of neglect than be given the kind of non-treatment prisoners are given.

Governor Deval Patrick not long ago released a statement that Massachusetts would need at least two Assisted Daily Living type prisons by 2020. I think the governor's predictions are off by ten years.

There are many men in here worse off than I. We can see them each day, struggling as best they can in an uncaring mileau of razor-wire mentality. Meanwhile, knee-jerk-reactionary politicians increase the length of sentences for minor crimes and are even now ready to sign a "Three Strikes Bill" into law, ensuring the prison population stays gray, gaunt, sick, crippled — suffering until death makes room for many more to follow.

   Joe Labriola, Prisoner

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