Thanks to ultra-long sentences, America's 2.3m prisoners are getting older. Under the 'Gold coats' programme in California, younger inmates look after elderly ones
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Prisons are becoming America's biggest old people's homes. Now the country that locks up more people than anywhere else must deal with the consequences of a growing prison population. Growing old in prison is hard.
Samuel Baxter is an inmate here at the California men's colony prison in San Luis Obispo almost everyday for the past four years Mr Baxter has helped elderly prisoners get dressed, eat, and get about prison. It is a confronting job.
In America some 2.2 million people are behind bars, and the prisoners are getting older. The number of people over the age of 65 who were in prison has doubled since 2007. In fact, aging men and women are the most rapidly growing part of America's prison population. In part, this is the hangover effect of the 1980s and 90s when a perfect storm of high crime rates and tough sentencing laws caused prison populations to soar.
Phillip Burdick is 64. He works alongside Mr Baxter in a program called the Gold Coats. The volunteer inmates who become Gold Coats are carefully screened and shadow an experienced volunteer sometimes for several months of training. Older prisoners often have special needs; some have problems with mobility, others dementia or mental health.
Caring for the elderly behind bars presents unique challenges. Prisoners can have the physiological age of someone 10 to 15 years older. Glenn Crites has been in prison for 44 years, since he was 20 years old, for murder. He remembers catching another elderly prisoner, nicknamed Pops, staring at him. Pops had Alzheimer's. He was trying to remember who Mr Crites was. He didn't fight Pop's, but older inmates are more vulnerable than younger ones.
Of the 1.6 million inmates in state and federal prisons, 1/10 are serving life sentences. Many politicians are now keen to reverse this mass incarceration but long timers seem unlikely to benefit. In California, a bid to reduce prison populations means less serious criminals now serve time in county jails or in the community. The inmates left behind tend to be the ones serving longer sentences. These are often the elderly.
America spends about 16 billion dollars every year caring for older inmates. The gold coats program aims to allay some of those costs. Volunteers are paid a mere 36 dollars a month. A fraction of what outside help, like a nursing assistant, would cost the prison.
Despite the challenges, the Gold Coats continue to help their aging counterparts. Mr Baxter has a particularly personal reason for wanting to do so; his mother had dementia. Mr Baxter is serving 35 years to life in prison for fatally shooting a man. He had his first parole hearing in March, but was turned down. He won't receive another review for at least five years and he has come to realize the Gold Coats may one day be caring for him.
For the elderly men who are released after decades behind bars, there may no longer be any friends or family on the outside who can provide care. Not everyone here will be granted parole. Some of these men will die in prison.
For those nearing the end of their lives Mr Burdick serves as a grief counselor in the prison hospice program.
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