Are prisons turning into nursing homes?

The number of lifers in U.S. prisons has tripled in the last 20 years, turning the penal system into a de facto nursing home for criminals—and you’re paying for their medical care. Is there a better solution?

  • Photograph: Peter Thompson/AP

    William Heirens, who died in Dixon Correctional Center last March after serving nearly 66 years for three notorious North Side killings, stands in the yard of the prison in 2002.

  • Photograph: Peter Hoffman

    Dixon Correctional Center inmate Thomas Odle admits to killing five family members in Mount Vernon in 1985, when he was 18. He is serving life in prison and is not eligible
    for parole.

  • Photograph: Peter Hoffman

    Dixon Correctional Center in Dixon, Illinois

His first victim was Josephine Ross, 43, stabbed in the throat. He next shot 33-year-old Frances Brown in the head, stuck a knife all the way through her neck, then uncapped a tube of the dead woman’s lipstick and scrawled this anguished message on her living-room wall: for heavens sake catch me before i kill more i cannot control myself

The police and newspapers now had a nickname: the Lipstick Killer. But before they had a suspect, there was a third murder: six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was kidnapped from her second-story bedroom in Edgewater. Later that day, her head was found floating in a sewer basin. The girl’s arms, legs and torso later surfaced elsewhere in the sanitary system.

Five months later, William Heirens, a 17-year-old University of Chicago student from Lincolnwood, was charged with the murders and sentenced to three consecutive life terms. By the time he died last March, Heirens had spent nearly 66 years in jail—eight months short of the record for the longest prison sentence in American history.

Heirens—who always professed his innocence—made something of himself in prison, becoming the first Illinois inmate to earn a college degree. But when he came up for parole in 1983, Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley declared, “Heirens is a cold-blooded killer who should serve out his sentence and remain in prison for the rest of his life—the only fitting punishment for his despicable crimes.”

Toward the end of his life, Heirens was a sickly diabetic with dementia, relying on a wheelchair and living in the medical unit at Dixon Correctional Center. Dolores Kennedy, a then-journalist who became Heirens’s advocate, argued for his parole on medical grounds, and even found a West Side nursing home willing to admit the convicted murderer (although she found the conditions there so “atrocious” she told his lawyer he’d be better off in prison). Heirens was never released.

Despite Heirens’s marathon prison stretch, he wasn’t an outlier. He was a pioneer. Since the 1970s, the nation’s incarceration rate has quintupled; the last time the U.S. prison population was tallied, in 2010, it was 1.6 million—the highest in the world. Meanwhile, sentences have become more strict (nationwide, the number of lifers tripled between 1992 and 2008), and many states, including Illinois, have abolished parole. The outcome: Prisons are becoming nursing homes for killers, child molesters and drug dealers. And all of us are paying for their medical care.

Prison-reform advocates argue that releasing these old men would save taxpayers money without compromising public safety. But victims’ families and law enforcement officers say life for some crimes should mean life, no matter what. On which side lies justice?

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