Pubdate: Tue, 12 May 2015
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The Buffalo News
Author: Sari Horwitz, Washington Post


Human, Financial Toll High As Tens of Thousands Linger

INSIDE COLEMAN PRISON, Fla. - Twenty-one years into his nearly 
50-year sentence, the graying man steps inside his stark cell in the 
largest federal prison complex in America. He wears special medical 
boots because of a foot condition that makes walking feel as if he's 
"stepping on a needle." He has undergone tests for a suspected heart 
condition and sometimes experiences vertigo.

"I get dizzy sometimes when I'm walking," says the 63-year-old 
inmate, Bruce Harrison. "One time, I just couldn't get up."

In 1994, Harrison and other members of the motorcycle group he 
belonged to were caught up in a drug sting by undercover federal 
agents, who asked them to move huge volumes of cocaine and marijuana. 
After taking the job, making several runs and each collecting $1,000, 
Harrison and the others were arrested and later convicted. When their 
sentences were handed down, however, jurors objected.

"I am sincerely disheartened by the fact that these defendants, who 
participated in the staged offloads and transports ... are looking at 
life in prison or decades at best," said one of several who wrote 
letters to the judge and prosecutor.

In recent years, federal sentencing guidelines have been revised, 
resulting in less-severe prison terms for low-level drug offenders. 
But Harrison, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, remains one of tens of 
thousands of inmates who were convicted in the "war on drugs" of the 
1980s and '90s and who are still behind bars.

Harsh sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums, continue to 
have lasting consequences for inmates and the nation's prison system. 
Today, prisoners 50 and older represent the fastest-growing 
population in crowded federal correctional facilities, their ranks 
having swelled by 25 percent to nearly 31,000 from 2009 to 2013.

Some prisons have needed to set up geriatric wards, while others have 
effectively been turned into convalescent homes.

The aging of the prison population is driving health care costs being 
borne by American taxpayers. The Bureau of Prisons saw health care 
expenses for inmates increase by 55 percent from 2006 to 2013, when 
it spent more than $1 billion. That figure is nearly equal to the 
entire budget of the U.S. Marshals Service or the Bureau of Alcohol, 
Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to the Justice 
Department's inspector general, who is conducting a review of the 
impact of the aging inmate population on prison activities, housing and costs.

"Our federal prisons are starting to resemble nursing homes 
surrounded with razor wire," said Julie Stewart, president and 
founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "It makes no sense 
fiscally, or from the perspective of human compassion, to incarcerate 
men and women who pose no threat to public safety and have long since 
paid for their crime. We need to repeal the absurd mandatory minimum 
sentences that keep them there."

The Obama administration is trying to overhaul the criminal-justice 
system by allowing prisoners who meet certain criteria to be released 
early through clemency and urging prosecutors to reserve the most 
severe drug charges for serious, high-level offenders.

At the same time, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent 
agency, has made tens of thousands of incarcerated drug offenders 
eligible for reduced sentences.

But until more elderly prisoners are discharged either through 
compassionate release programs or the clemency initiative started by 
then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. last year  the government 
will be forced to spend more to serve the population. Among other 
expenditures, that means hiring additional nurses and redesigning 
prisons  installing showers that can be used by the elderly, for 
instance, or ensuring that entryways are wheelchair-accessible.

Ill-equipped for burden

"Prisons simply are not physically designed to accommodate the 
infirmities that come with age," said Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser 
at Human Rights Watch and an author of a report titled "Old Behind Bars."

"There are countless ways that the aging inmates, some with dementia, 
bump up against the prison culture," she said. "It is difficult to 
climb to the upper bunk, walk up stairs, wait outside for pills, take 
showers in facilities without bars and even hear the commands to 
stand up for count or sit down when you're told."

For years, state prisons followed the federal government's lead in 
enacting harsh sentencing laws. In 2010, there were some 246,000 
prisoners age 50 and older in state and federal prisons combined, 
with nearly 90 percent of them held in state custody, the American 
Civil Liberties Union said in a report titled "At America's Expense: 
The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly."

On both the state and federal level, the spiraling costs are eating 
into funds that could be used to curtail violent crime, drug cartels, 
public corruption, financial fraud and human trafficking. The costs 
as well as officials' concerns about racial disparities in sentencing 
are also driving efforts to reduce the federal prison population.

For now, however, prison officials say there is little they can do 
about the costs.

Edmond Ross, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, said: "We have to 
provide a certain level of medical care for whoever comes to us."

'Older and sicker'

Except for the loud clang of heavy steel security doors that close 
behind a visitor, the Butner Federal Medical Center in North Carolina 
feels nothing like the prisons portrayed on television and in movies.

Elderly inmates dressed in khaki prison uniforms are not locked up 
during the day, but instead congregate with each other in their 
wheelchairs, wait for treatment in clinics and walk, sometimes with 
canes or walkers, through their living quarters.

Signs hang from the ceiling, directing prisoners to various units: 
"Urgent Care," "Mental Health," "Surgery," "Ambulatory Care," "Oncology."

"This facility mirrors a hospital more than a prison," said Kenneth 
McKoy, acting executive assistant to the warden at Butner, a prison 
about 20 minutes northeast of Durham. "We provide long-term care."

The facility is the largest medical complex in the Bureau of Prisons, 
which has 121 prisons, including six that have medical centers. With 
more than 900 inmates in need of medical care, Butner even provides 
hospice-like care for dying inmates.

In his "cell" on a recent day, Michael Hodge lay in a hospitallike 
bed where he spent his days mostly staring at the television. A 
prison official had just helped him get out of his wheelchair. A 
prison employee delivered his meals. He could hardly keep his eyes open.

In 2000, Hodge was convicted on charges of distribution and 
possession of marijuana and possessing a gun, and was sentenced to 20 
years. When a Washington Post reporter visited Hodge in mid-April, he 
was dying of liver cancer. He died April 18, prison officials said.

"Tell my wife I love her," said Hodge, who said he was in great pain.

Many prisoners at Butner are as sick as Hodge was, McCoy says.

"Why are we keeping someone behind bars who is bedridden and needs 
assistance to get out of bed and feed and clothe himself?" asked 
Fellner, of Human Rights Watch. "What do we gain from keeping people 
behind bars at an enormous cost when they no longer pose any danger 
to the public if they were released?"

Hodge submitted at least four requests for compassionate release over 
the last few years, but none were approved by officials, according to 
his ex-wife Kim Hodge, whom he still referred to as his wife.

"The man is 51 and dying," Kim Hodge said in an interview last month. 
"He never killed nobody, he's not a child molester, he's not a bad 
person. Now he's going to die in there."

Taxpayers are increasingly picking up the tab for inmates who 
received lengthy mandatory sentences for drug offenses and have since 
aged and developed conditions that require round-the-clock medical care.

The average cost of housing federal inmates nearly doubles for aging 
prisoners. While the cost of a prisoner in the general population is 
$27,549 a year, the price tag associated with an older inmate who 
needs more medical care, including expensive prescription drugs and 
treatments, is $58,956, Justice Department officials say.

At Federal Medical Center Devens, a prison near Boston, 115 aging 
inmates with kidney failure receive treatment inside a dialysis unit.

"Renal failure is driving our costs up," said Ted Eichel, the 
health-services administrator for Devens. "It costs $4 million to run 
this unit, not counting medications, which is half our budget." 
Devens also employs 60 nurses, along with social workers, dietitians, 
psychologists, dentists and physical therapists. They look like 
medical workers, except for the cluster of prison keys they're carrying.

Down the hallway, inmates in wheelchairs line up to receive their 
daily pills and insulin shots.

Although the prison houses about 1,000 low-to high-security inmates, 
they are not handcuffed or shackled, except when being transferred 
outside the facility. A golf cart has been redesigned into a mini-ambulance.

At prisons such as Devens, younger inmates are sometimes enlisted as 
"companion aides," helping older ones get out of bed, wheeling them 
down the halls to medical appointments and helping with their care. 
"The population here is getting older and sicker," said Michael 
Renshaw, a Devens clinical nurse and corrections officer who noted 
the differences between working as a nurse there and "on the outside."

"Inmates get very good care here," Renshaw said. "But on the outside, 
maybe you would give a patient a hug or he would hug you. Here, you 
have to be able to maintain your borders. It's a prison."

As with all prisons, fights occasionally break out. At Devens, it's 
sometimes between patients who are in wheelchairs or, in at least one 
case, between an inmate who climbed out of his wheelchair and onto 
another prisoner's bed to assault him.

John Thompson, a patient care technician who works with Devens' 
dialysis patients, said he knows a number of people who "want no part 
of" providing medical care to prisoners.

"But I just feel like they're good people," Thompson said. "And 
they're doing their time. Some guys have an attitude, but I tell 
them, if you show me respect, I'll show you respect."

Jesse Owens, a dialysis patient serving about 12 years for cocaine 
charges, said he's grateful for the care. "They're keeping us alive," he said.

Harrison's crammed cell at the Federal Correctional Complex Coleman 
in Florida near Orlando is devoid of the clutter of life on the 
outside. The space he shares with another inmate has only a sink, a 
toilet, a bunk bed with cots, a steel cabinet, two plastic gray 
chairs, a desk and a bulletin board with a postcard of a Florida waterspout.

 From a tiny window, he can see Spanish moss draped over trees in the distance.

Interminable sentences

Forty-five years ago, Harrison served with the Marines in Vietnam. A 
machine-gunner, he was shot twice and was awarded two Purple Hearts. 
When he came back, he felt as though he had nowhere to turn. He later 
joined a motorcycle group known as the Outlaws.

Harrison was approached by an undercover agent who was part of a law 
enforcement team trying to bring down the group, which had been 
suspected of illegal activity. He and fellow members of the club were 
offered a kilogram of cocaine to offload and transport drugs. He 
declined, saying none of them wanted to be paid in drugs.

"I didn't want drugs, because I really wouldn't have known what to do 
with them," Harrison said in an interview. "We didn't sell them."

But Harrison and the others took the job because the agents offered 
cash, and they needed the money. Over a period of several months, 
they would move what they believed to be real drugs  more than 1,400 
kilos of cocaine and about 3,200 pounds of marijuana.

Harrison carried a gun for protection during two of the offloads. He 
didn't use it, but after authorities arrested him and fellow members 
of his group, he was charged with possessing a firearm while 
committing a drug offense.

His 1995 trial in Tampa lasted four months. His lawyer at the time 
argued that "this was a government operation from beginning to end. 
. Everything was orchestrated by the government. ... He was not a 
leader. The only leaders in this case, the only organizers in this 
case was the United States government."

The jury, nonetheless, found Harrison and the others guilty of 
transporting the drugs.

Harrison was sentenced to roughly 24 years for possessing cocaine and 
marijuana with the intent to distribute. The conviction on the 
firearms charge carried a 25-year penalty, meaning he is effectively 
serving a life sentence.

"There's no doubt that that's a harsh penalty," U.S. District Judge 
Susan C. Bucklew said during the sentencing hearing. "But that's what 
the statute says, and I don't think I have any alternative but to do that."

"I don't have a whole lot of discretion here," she said at another point.

After Harrison and the others were sentenced, several of the jurors 
expressed shock to learn how long those convicted were to spend behind bars.

"If I would have been given the right to not only judge the facts in 
this case, but also the law and the actions taken by the government, 
the prosecutor, local and federal law enforcement officers connected 
in this case would be in jail and not the defendants," juror Patrick 
McNeil wrote.

Six jurors signed a letter requesting that a new trial be ordered, 
saying that if they had been told by the court that they could have 
found that the government had entrapped the defendants, they would 
have found them not guilty.

"Bruce Harrison had never been involved in unloading drugs," said his 
current lawyer, Tom Dawson. "He didn't arrange for any of these 
drugs. The government did."

Andrea Strong, a childhood friend of Harrison, said he doesn't claim 
to have been a saint. "But, in a compassionate world, this man would 
not be less than halfway through a sentence for a drug offense that 
happened 20 years ago," Strong said. "He would've done his time, paid 
his debt to society, and be released."

Along with tens of thousands of other inmates around the country, 
Harrison is applying for clemency under the Obama administration's 
program to release drug offenders who have been in prison for at 
least 10 years and whose cases meet certain criteria.

"If I got out, I'd go back home and be with my three grandkids and 
help them out," Harrison said.

Another aging inmate at Coleman, 58-year-old Luis Anthony Rivera of 
Miami, has also applied for clemency. He was convicted of conspiracy 
to import cocaine and has so far served 30 years.

When he was sentenced in 1985, it marked his first criminal offense.

While in Coleman's maximum-security penitentiary, Rivera began 
painting with oil and watercolors, trying to recreate the world 
outside bars. When he was moved to the medium-security prison on the 
same grounds he wasn't allowed to bring his art supplies, and he 
can't afford to buy new ones.

But the move brought a new joy. He saw a tree for the first time in 
10 years. "It was amazing to see a tree," said Rivera, a former pilot 
who was in the National Guard and the Army and now spends his days 
working in the prison commissary stocking shelves and filling orders.

"I understand the system of putting people in prison. It works. No 
doubt," Rivera said. "But how much time you put them in for makes a 
determination. For the first five years, you suffer. You really do. 
They keep everything away from you  food, all your basics. So you 
long for them, watching a commercial on TV, seeing a product that you 
can't touch or have."

"But after then, you start to get hardened," Rivera said.

If he does not receive clemency, how much time does he have to serve 
before getting out?

His lips quivered and his eyes filled with tears.

"I'm not," Rivera said. "I have life, plus 140 years."
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