Twilight behind bars

October 22, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

"Fingers" has done the math.

He figures it costs the state of Maryland $105,000 a year to keep him here in the hulking House of Correction in Jessup: to cut away his cataracts, to fend off his heart attacks, to tend the 72-year-old body of a lifelong thief.

Let him out, and the federal government would pay about $4,800 a year in Supplemental Security Income benefits that are cut off every time Fingers, known in his voluminous court files as Edward Scott Hodgester, goes to prison. "That's a $100,000 savings," harrumphs the great-grandfather serving 10 years for burglary. "Do you need me in jail?"

It's the multimillion-dollar question of the moment, as state officials tackle the task of figuring out how to keep taxpayers from footing monstrous bills to keep a growing criminal population behind bars.

In announcing recently that he does not intend to parole inmates with life terms for murder and rape, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he would make exceptions for prisoners who are old or terminally ill. The governor also announced a plan to come up with different ways to deal with "nonviolent" inmates, who might be housed less expensively through home detention programs, halfway houses or other alternatives to prisons.

Studies have shown that convicts tend to mellow as they grow older, and that they have a less than 10 percent probability of committing crimes after age 55.

And it can be frightfully expensive to care for elderly prisoners. While prison officials can't verify Fingers' calculation of what he costs, they do know that it takes $25,000 to $30,000 to pay for the average Maryland prisoner each year, and that studies have shown older prisoners often cost three times that.

In an oasis from the cacophony of the House of Correction, called M-dorm, a collection of 46 men shows just how individual -- and how complex -- these evaluations can be.

There, Fingers is among a group of men over 50 marking time. Along with him are inmates like Gordon Gaskins, serving life for a 1967 murder he calls a robbery that got out of control; Herbert Barnett, convicted of attempted murder, expecting AIDS to take him before old age; Floyd Taylor, convicted of attempted rape, who hopes to start a senior citizens' program to increase awareness of older prisoners.

About 3.6 percent of Maryland's 21,000 prisoners are over the age of 50, the point at which the National Institute of Corrections defines someone as old. Other than M-dorm and a unit for the disabled at the minimum-security Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, there are no geriatric facilities for prisoners, and no plans to create them.

No options

"We don't have an option," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who heads a program that seeks parole and alternative placements for older prisoners. "The question today is not whether someone will be released, but who?"

But there are other questions. Who is old? Who is risky? And how does one decide?

According to Division of Correction records, none of the five oldest inmates in the system is serving a life sentence. All have sentences of less than 15 years, for crimes ranging from battery to second-degree murder.

The oldest inmate in Maryland's system, Albert Dingis, is 88 and living at the Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore, according to prison records. He has been there for the past three years on a charge of theft -- for which he was convicted at age 85. Records indicate he has been in prison before. (He declined a request for an interview.)

"When our folks started taking a look at the folks we had who were old folks, we were taken aback," said Dr. Anthony Swetz, an assistant commissioner for the Division of Correction.

A recent experiment, in which corrections and parole officials reviewed the cases of 200 of the oldest and least violent inmates for possible release, yielded only a few worth banking on, said Maryland Parole Commission Chairman Paul J. Davis. He thought more would have qualified.

On this tier, some men are serving time for murders older than the guards who watch over them. A few have been locked up only recently, and for the first time. Others, like Fingers, are doing life on the installment plan.

Life in M-dorm

To live in M-dorm, you must be at least 50. The men play cards and pool, and protect each other from the increasingly young and dangerous inmates in the 1,197-man population at the place residents call "The Cut."

They rise early -- breakfast is at 5 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m. In between, those who can work at prison jobs do so. On weekends they play pinochle and bridge in the dorm.

Four private showers are available for 46 men. The dilapidated stalls are still a luxury when compared with the group showers other prisoners use.

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