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

Thomas Odle is a slender 45-year-old with blue eyes, blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and the docile manner of a man resigned to prison not as a temporary loss of freedom, but a permanent lifestyle.


“What was your offense?” I ask him.


“Murder.”


“What happened?”


“I was a drug addict, I drank. I came from a violent home. I was tripping on acid. They told me to leave, get out of the house.”


“Did you kill a family member?”


“Five of ’em.”


Odle was 18 in 1985, when he stabbed his parents, brother and sister in the small Illinois town of Mount Vernon. He strangled his youngest brother. Odle was taken off Death Row by Gov. George Ryan, who commuted all death sentences before leaving office in 2003. Earlier this year, Odle delivered meals to the third floor, and to the dying men in the hospice unit on the floor below.


“When you go down there, you’re in trouble,” Hurst says. “When people come back from there to the third floor, we just hollerin’, ‘You made it back from the dead.’ You got to have some humor with this thing.”


Because Odle committed his murders after 1978, only an act of clemency from a governor can set him free. (Under the sentence adjustment bill that failed in the state House, he would have become eligible for release in 2016.) When I called the Jefferson County State Attorney’s Office to ask whether it would fight his release, I was told the current officeholder was only four years old when Odle killed his family, and has no firsthand recollection of the crime. But, as Odle puts it, “the town hasn’t forgotten.” That’s why, when he fed the old men, he saw his own future.


“You had guys with lung cancer, strokes, dying a slow death,” he says. “Some of them are just sad. It made me sad because if this is my life, I’m going to end up there. This is how I’m going to be treated. … They’re going out the same way they came in: bald and in a diaper.”


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