The Nation's Oldest Male Criminals

Elderly inmates make up an increasing percentage of the U.S. prison population. Many are serving life sentences. Others are in prison for crimes committed late in life. The oldest male prisoner in the country is 99 years old. The fourth-oldest prisoner is John Rodriguez.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The US prison population is getting older. Popular campaigns from the 1980s and '90s, such as the war on drugs, truth-in-sentencing and three strikes you're out, have led to longer sentences and, in many cases, no parole. The result is a growing number of inmates facing a lifetime in prison and the prospect of dying there. NPR's Laura Sullivan went looking for the oldest inmates in America. Her search took her to the West Coast.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

California's central repository for elderly inmates looks like a cross between a nursing home and a hospital.

Unidentified Woman #1: Company here. Come on in.

SULLIVAN: There are no guards, no guns, no locked doors, just nurses in pastel uniforms and inmates in hospital gowns wandering freely in wheelchairs. Many have thinning gray hair and old tattoos long-faded under wrinkled skin.

Mr. JOHN P. RODRIGUEZ (Inmate): My name is John P. Rodriguez, R-O-D-R-I-G-U-E-Z. I was born in Yda Puerto Ana Horto(ph), Mexico, 1912.

SULLIVAN: For the record, John Rodriguez is the fourth-oldest prisoner in America. The three oldest were either too frail or unable to be interviewed. They are 99-year-old Ivory Lee Johnson(ph) in New Jersey, 98-year-old Burt Jackson(ph) in Utah and 95-year-old Michael Moreno(ph) in Illinois. John Rodriguez is 93.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I've been a bum all my life.

SULLIVAN: Rodriguez was once a wealthy drug dealer, the owner of four bars and two large homes. But since 1979, he's been in prison, for the most part here at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo. He was given a life sentence for stabbing his third wife to death for having an affair.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: She started screwing around with a younger man, you know, and she moved out, so I went and killed her.

SULLIVAN: Rodriguez is old and weak. His arm is chronically broken from constant falls. His hearing is gone, and he can no longer walk. Nobody visits him. He spends his days in a wheelchair, a blanket draped over his hospital gown.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I'm sorry for the life that I led. It was terrible, you know. Like I said, I've had a good life, bad life, worst life. At 93, what can I do?

SULLIVAN: The inmates in this part of the prison were once considered dangerous predators, doomed to serve some of the harshest sentences of their time, decades to life in prison. Now Rodriguez and the others look like a coffee klatch of old men, swapping stories to pass the time.

Mr. LESLIE KEITH(ph) (Inmate): He's a grouch, that's why. One thing I don't want to do is I do not get along with cranky old men.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SULLIVAN: Sitting just a few feet away from John Rodriguez are three of his friends, keeping close watch over him and the goings-on in the hallway. They're quick to offer their names, where they were born and when.

Mr. KEITH: Leslie Keith, High School(ph), Missouri, 1927.

Mr. LEVI BANKS(ph) (Inmate): Levi Banks, 1925, Ohio.

Mr. RICHARD D. KEETCH(ph) (Inmate): Richard D. Keetch, Long Beach, California, 1919.

SULLIVAN: They are among more than a dozen men over the age of 60 in this facility. Everything takes place here in the hallway and in a large adjoining dorm room. They spend their days talking with doctors.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...so he won't be in here as long.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: One group sits riveted to the television, watching an infomercial for Bare Escentuals makeup.

(Soundbite of Bare Escentuals infomercial)

Unidentified Woman #3: I hated liquid foundation. I couldn't--I dreaded it every morning, and I felt like people weren't looking at me.

SULLIVAN: Like most men this age, many here are World War II veterans. Richard Keetch is serving a life sentence for shooting his son-in-law. He spent three and a half years in a Japanese prison camp.

Mr. KEETCH: In the first three months of this camp, they killed 200 men. This is child's play. I have no problem here at all.

Ms. SANDY SHELTON (Medical Social Worker): This is home now. This has become home. They really don't know anything but this place.

SULLIVAN: Sandy Shelton is the facility's medical social worker. She says she finds these men easygoing and content to be here.

Ms. SHELTON: How these guys survive, they have created a wor--those of them that are functioning well have created their own world here. This is a world inside a world. And for those of them who learn that and know how to do it, they function. They manage to have a life.

SULLIVAN: Facilities like this one in California cost taxpayers a fortune. A report last year from the Justice Department found it costs on average $70,000 a year per elderly inmate, almost three times what it costs to incarcerate a younger prisoner. But corrections officials say they have no choice but to pay for separate housing. Regular prisons were designed for youth, full of stairs, narrow corridors and long distances. Eighty-year-old Levi Banks says there's another advantage to this facility. Prisons are also full of young, aggressive criminals.

Mr. BANKS: I was up in Folsom for two years before I got here, you know, and that's a scary place, all them youngsters up there. It's got a hundred, 200, you know. And it's a scary place to be, 'cause you don't know what's going to happen. You don't know when one of them is going to just start stabbing people, you know. And I said, `Man, get me out of here.'

SULLIVAN: Levi Banks and Leslie Keith say every week, they watch from the yard as a new batch of 20-year-olds arrives at the gate, each with a life sentence, each with no idea of the life they will be missing.

Mr. KEITH: It's sad, very sad. They haven't even tasted life yet.

Mr. BANKS: Come from the womb to the tomb, you know. And then they come--and they're mad, you know. I mean, this--you know, they got some at--they've got some attitudes in here. Don't think they haven't.

SULLIVAN: These men, though, are long past being mad. Richard Keetch says they look around at other prisoners and staff and see friends.

Mr. KEETCH: To be honest, this is the nicest hospital you could ever find. We get the very best service you could ask for.

SULLIVAN: Levi Banks, who's serving 32-to-life for assaulting his neighbor, says after all this time, there's not much left for him on the outside.

Mr. BANKS: There's some good people here, you know. I don't have no people, but you'd think I'd have some with the ones that want to come up and see me. People that work here come up her and see me. It makes you feel like you're worth something, you know, that they see something that maybe you don't see.

SULLIVAN: Down the hall, John Rodriguez looks over at his friends and his favorite nurse. Every few years, the parole board reviews his case, but he says he's not interested in leaving.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I like this place now. Why? Everybody likes me. Everybody gets along with me, and they like the way I act. I always tell them silly stories, and, you know, well, like, everybody likes me. So you see how lucky I am?

SULLIVAN: Rodriguez is up again for parole next year, when he'll be 94. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, we'll meet the oldest female inmate in America. She is 91-year-old Lucille Mary Keppen. She shot a man in her senior public housing complex when she was 88.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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