Woman, 91, Is Oldest Female Inmate

In the second of two reports on elderly inmates in U.S. prisons, a look at the case of the oldest female prisoner in the country. Lucille Keppen is 91 and is serving time in a state prison in Minnesota.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

The number of elderly inmates in US prisons has tripled over the past 10 years, and not just men. There are now more elderly women behind bars than ever before. Yesterday, we heard about one of the oldest men in prison. Today, we meet the oldest incarcerated woman, 91-year-old Lucille Mary Keppen. She committed her crime just three years ago. NPR's Laura Sullivan found her in Shakopee, Minnesota.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

Here in the quiet suburbs of Minneapolis, in a modern brick facility with carpeted floors and dormlike rooms, lives the oldest female prisoner in the United States.

Ms. LUCILLE MARY KEPPEN (Inmate): I committed my crime in '02, September 15th. I'll never forget that.

SULLIVAN: Lucille Mary Keppen is a small, frail woman with a patch of gray hair and a walking cane. Three years ago, when she was 88, she shot and wounded a male companion who lived in her senior public housing complex in downtown Minneapolis. She was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Ms. KEPPEN: I have lost everything, everything.

SULLIVAN: The man she shot was 64-year-old Stephen "Bart" Flesche. Flesche had nursed Keppen back to health after her heart attack and spent time with her. In return, Keppen paid most of Flesche's bills. She bought him a van and paid for his gas. But in early fall 2002, Flesche says their relationship changed.

Mr. STEPHEN "BART" FLESCHE (Victim): I didn't agree with her thinking that I was her companion or boyfriend.

SULLIVAN: Bart Flesche describes himself as a missionary. He says he tried to minister to Keppen. He says Keppen grew jealous when he befriended other women, and angry when other women gave him money.

Mr. FLESCHE: It was better to part ways because we couldn't agree. I says, `You best find somebody else to minister to you,' and so we separated.

SULLIVAN: That's now how Keppen saw it. One Sunday morning, not long after Flesche broke off the relationship, Keppen went to church. She came home, had lunch and set up coffee and doughnuts for the seniors' afternoon church service. Then she went to her closet, pulled down a large box and chose a gun from her deceased husband's gun collection. She loaded it.

Ms. KEPPEN: I said to myself, `If he's just halfway decent to me, just halfway decent, I'll take it upstairs.' Well, when he came down so arrogant, and he looked at me and he went, `Good evening,' and I thought, `That's it.' And he turned around so fast, and I caught him in the back.

SULLIVAN: The bullet lodged in Flesche's right lung.

Mr. FLESCHE: It felt kind of funny, because at first, I was in shock. I never expected it, and all of a sudden, I realized, `Oh, my God, I've been shot.'

SULLIVAN: Horrified seniors standing nearby panicked, but Lucille Keppen stayed calm.

Ms. KEPPEN: And I said to him, `Does it hurt?' And I said, `I really want it to hurt because you have hurt me so deeply and I was so good to you.' I said, `Do you realize every stitch of clothing that you have on your body--your glasses, your watch, the ring'--I said, `I've even paid for your haircuts.'

Mr. FLESCHE: I just kept my mouth shut. And, you know, hell has no fury like a woman scorned.

SULLIVAN: Shortly after, Flesche passed out, and that's when Keppen saw the pool of blood forming on the floor beside him.

Ms. KEPPEN: (Gasps) I got panicky. I thought, `Oh, my God, what did I do?' And I screamed and I hollered, and I said, `Please, get an ambulance right away. Hurry!'

SULLIVAN: That was three years ago.

Ms. KEPPEN: Oh, right by the beautiful garden. Look at that.

SULLIVAN: Today, Lucille Keppen spends her days writing letters and walking in a large, well-tended courtyard. Shakopee is one of the newest facilities for women in Minnesota. Keppen says she misses life on the outside. She lost her savings, her friends and, of course, her freedom. But in some ways, for a poor senior, the health care and accommodations here are better than they are in senior public housing.

Ms. KEPPEN: We have our own private bathroom and a chair. My bed has a light on it, and I have a little thing for my TV. And it's clean, and we get clean linens every Saturday. So it's comfortable.

SULLIVAN: The 1980s and '90s brought about tough, anti-crime initiatives and harsher sentencing. Because of that, the ranks of elderly in the nation's prisons have exploded. Most elderly inmates have spent decades in prison. But a few, like Keppen, are sentenced late in life as court's have grown less willing to show leniency because of age.

In prison, elderly women, much like older men, often need 24-hour attention, expensive health care and help getting around. Keppen is no different. At 91, she can't always wait to use the rest room, she can't stand in line for long periods of time and prison staff often have to stop her in the hallways when she gets confused.

Unidentified Woman: Do you know where you're going?

Ms. KEPPEN: I think I...

Unidentified Woman: Down to the OCO desk.

Ms. KEPPEN: Yeah, after I get out in the hall...

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Ms. KEPPEN: ...I'll find my way.

Unidentified Woman: And don't forget you have to have lunch then, too, before you go. You should. It's noon. That's the last lunch.

(Soundbite of cafeteria activity)

SULLIVAN: At lunch, Keppen's gray hair stands out in the middle of a prison cafeteria filled with hundreds of young, lively prisoners.

Ms. KEPPEN: She helps me with my tray.

SULLIVAN: A woman in her 20s rushes to the front to hold Keppen's tray. One group of women has saved her the last seat at their table; they call her Grandma.

Bart Flesche eats most of his lunches these days alone. After the shooting, Flesche had to move out of the high-rise where he and Keppen lived when residents called him a troublemaker. Keppen wrote to Flesche a year later. It was supposed to be an apology letter, but that's not quite how Flesche read it. He says he hopes Lucille Keppen serves the whole seven years because he doesn't think she's really sorry and, in many ways, she's not.

Ms. KEPPEN: I made one mistake at 88. It should have been reversed. He should have been here, and I should have been out.

SULLIVAN: That's unlikely to happen. Despite a small group of supporters who want Lucille Keppen let out early because of her age, Minnesota's governor is not considering an early release. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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