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

Dixon Correctional Center, where William Heirens spent his last years, is the old folks’ home of the Illinois prison system. On the third floor—also known as the geriatric/medical unit—live 83 men in varying degrees of physical decline. There’s a man in a wheelchair, carrying a 60-pound tumor. A throat cancer victim. A man who lost his sight when he was whacked with a board at the Cook County Jail. The unit has a TV room, an exercise room, a billiard table and a kidney dialysis machine. Unlike the rest of the prison, it’s air-conditioned, and meals are delivered to the inmates, so those too feeble to walk don’t have to make a trip to the mess hall. The line-up for medication and insulin is the most animated moment of the day.

Joseph Hurst was sent to the third floor in 2008, after suffering a stroke that left him with a limp and collapsed his right hand into a claw. Hurst, who has gone by the name Yusuf since his conversion to Islam, has spent 45 of his 69 years in prison. On May 23, 1967, he was pulled over for speeding in Woodlawn. Officer Herman Stallworth tried to question Hurst, who was not carrying a driver’s license, but Hurst shot him in the chest, then barricaded himself inside a hotel, firing at police until he ran out of bullets.

Hurst was sentenced to death, but that was commuted to life in prison in 1974, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Furman v. Georgia decision temporarily invalidated all capital punishment statutes. Now, he’s a “C-number,” Illinois prison lingo for a long-termer who was locked up before 1978. As a result, Hurst is eligible for parole—but the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, which looks after the interests of slain officers’ families, is determined to see he never gets it.

“If you kill a police officer in the line of duty, you should spend the rest of your life in prison,” says the foundation’s executive director, former Chicago Police Supt. Phil Cline. “Herman Stallworth was a Navy veteran. He had four kids. He was married.”

In 2004, Stallworth’s widow, Geraldine, told the Chicago Tribune she has forgiven Hurst, “but I still prefer him to stay in prison because I don’t believe that he has changed. A lot of prisoners pretend they’re changed and when they get out, they do the same thing.”

Hurst insists he has changed. Not just spiritually, through his embrace of Islam, or intellectually, through his work assisting other inmates in the law library, but organically. As with most elderly prisoners, the youthful impulses that caused him to kill have diminished, along with his strength, his hair and his testosterone.

“The spirit of adventure that’s in a younger person’s not in an older person,” he says. “The older person would tell him, ‘Son, I’ve been there, done that, don’t recommend it.’ Most on the third floor have been held beyond the benefit to society. You’ve got guys who can’t walk, guys who need help breathing. Sticking somebody up and running away is physically impossible.”

There is an evolutionary theory that murder is a reproductive strategy to eliminate rivals for mates. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, murder arrests peak when offenders are in their late teens and early twenties, and begin declining sharply after age 24. In 2009, even just the estimated number of 18-year-old males arrested for murder—818—was nearly as great as all the murderers 50 and older—912. A study by U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that just 1.2 percent of paroled murderers were rearrested on a homicide charge within three years—the lowest recidivism rate of any crime.

I conduct my interview with Hurst in the visitor center at Dixon. It looks like any break room in any factory or community college: Formica tables with orange plastic chairs, a bank of vending machines selling soda and frozen pizza. Hurst is dressed in the light blue shirt, dark blue trousers and oval plastic glasses issued to prisoners. Besides his stroke, he also suffers from Parkinsonism, a condition similar to Parkinson’s disease, and an enlarged prostate, which requires him to wear a catheter. At one point during our talk, he lifts the cuff of his pants to show me a plastic bag bloated with urine.

“Excuse me,” he says. “I have to go empty my bag.”

When Hurst returns, I ask him how he could prove to the people of Illinois that he would not commit another crime.

“How can you let that come out of your mouth?” he asks. “You can just see me sticking someone up and going down the street with a catheter.”

Peeing in a bag shouldn’t be a get-out-of-prison-free card, say advocates for crime victims. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins’s pregnant sister and brother-in-law were shot to death in Winnetka by a teenage thrill killer in 1990. Since then, she has campaigned against handguns—and for victims’ rights. Along with her husband, Bill, whose son was murdered in Virginia, Jenkins runs, which works to ensure life sentences last a lifetime.

Bishop-Jenkins doesn’t believe that giving older prisoners parole would necessarily save taxpayers money. The risk of a convict committing another rape or murder means a likelihood you’ll be paying to catch them and lock them back up, she says.

Moreover, she adds, the sentence modification bill that failed in the Illinois House, if retroactive, would traumatize survivors who expected their loved ones’ killers to be locked away forever.

“Life sentences are, and should be, very rare, and they should only be given to people who commit a crime so heinous that the life sentence is appropriate,” Bishop-Jenkins says. “You really can’t say years later legislatively, ‘We don’t think the life sentence should be carried out.’ ”

But in the battle between taxpayers and what some consider true justice, maybe there’s middle ground. A sentence modification law that more closely mimics Louisiana’s, which is limited to nonviolent offenders, may have a better chance of passing than the proposed 2009 law, which gave murderers a chance to get out of prison. Aviva Futorian, an attorney who represented Death Row inmates on appeal when Illinois had a Death Row, says prison-reform advocates may try again to pass a sentence-modification law. While she’d like to see the law apply to all inmates (“It creates an incentive for good behavior, and thus, should make the prison safer for everyone,” she says), “if it was either [a law to help] nonviolent offenders or [to help] none at all, you’d take the [help for] nonviolent offenders,” she concedes.