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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. There are more inmates growing old in the nation's prisons than at any time in U.S. history. It's a result of longer sentences and the elimination of parole. The price tag of those policies is starting to show.

SIEGEL: Elderly inmates need more health care and people to help them around - help them get around, rather. They cost taxpayers $16 million a year. And by the year 2030, the number of elderly inmates is expected to grow by hundreds of thousands. States are facing future costs in the billions.

CORNISH: A few years ago, the state of Colorado tried releasing some of its older inmates with little success. Some told their parole officers they just wanted to go home, meaning back to prison. Now, the state is trying a first-of-its-kind program to help older inmates adjust.

SIEGEL: NPR's Laura Sullivan spent two years with rare access to this unusual group of aging ex-cons. In this first of two stories, she follows them as they try to attempt to navigate a fast-paced world and a society unsure if they deserve that chance.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Nine inmates are lined up outside a door waiting for a staff member to let them into an empty room. It's a line of dark green jumpsuits and gray hair at the Sterling Correctional Facility in northeast Colorado. The men hobbling in on canes wait for the others to pull the plastic chairs into a circle for a meeting to talk about what life is like on the outside.

TIM HAND: Well gentlemen, glad to be here. It's been awhile.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: It's good to have you. It's been awhile.

HAND: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Tim Hand, at the time a division director at the Department of Corrections, starts things off. It's a group of carefully selected inmates - model inmates, for decades.

HAND: Let's go ahead and start here. You got the hot seat - right here to my right.

SULLIVAN: They start around the room. A man with gray hair and a round belly waits his turn.

JOHN HUCKLEBERRY: My name's John Huckleberry. I've been locked up 29 years and two years prior to that in county.

SULLIVAN: John Huckleberry's 70 years old, give or take because he was born about the time his mother emigrated from Sicily and he doesn't have a birth certificate. Huckleberry, like the rest of the men here, was sent to prison in the old days, back in the 1970s and '80s, when a life sentence still came with parole. A lot of states want inmates like this, and they're exorbitant healthcare costs, off the books. Any state that releases 15 or so of these guys saves a million dollars a year. But Colorado already tried that, as Hand reminds the group.

HAND: Historically we've just kind of handed you your 100 bucks and said good luck and make it work and don't recidivate.

SULLIVAN: The men nod. Inmates like Lefty Gomez know the rest of the story.

LEFTY GOMEZ: One guy, when I was in Limon, he had been 35 years in prison without seeing the streets. He said that it was so different, so fast-paced - he couldn't take it. He went and got a gun and went to a liquor store and told the guy, I'm not here to rob you but I want you to call the police. And they sent him back to prison.

SULLIVAN: Tim Hand actually remembers that guy. Running parole, he was averaging five or six of these stories a year. So now he's trying it another way. He's putting older inmates through a kind of school. Today's class is about how to use an ATM, how to find a job, what the Internet is. After the meeting, John Huckleberry and another inmate, Steve Glover (ph) mill about. Huckleberry likes to talk cars.

HUCKLEBERRY: He was a used car salesman. That's not a good...

STEVE GLOVER: Was a used car. (Laughing)

SULLIVAN: Huckleberry' last car...

HUCKLEBERRY: An '81 Toyota Supra. I worked for a Toyota dealer. And it had an 8-track tape.

SULLIVAN: Huckleberry says he's been in prison so long, he'll probably die here. He says it like he's always known it to be true. Unless, maybe, he can get into the second half of this prison program - the part on the outside, the part where former inmates in jeans and T-shirts crowd around a steel drum BBQ by the side of a Denver freeway.

This is where Tim Hand sends the men in green jumpsuits when they get paroled from prison - to the Dahlia halfway house. Most will spend about six months here. Once a week, they get together, eat and talk - like a support group. You won't see this kind of gathering anywhere else. Parolees are usually prohibited from associating with other ex-cons. But in this program, called the Long Term Offender Program or LTOP, it's required. And if there's anything these guys know how to do after decades in prison, it's hang out together and joke. Chris Mayes is a one-time bank robber, is trying to explain the details of a bank account.

CHRIS MAYES: We got the debit card in LTOP's name.

SULLIVAN: A former inmate named Greg Wells can't resist.

GREG WELLS: I want to ask you a question about that though, Chris. When you went in to get the - set up the account for LTOP, I know how it felt for me when I went in - set up my savings accounts and stuff - but did you feel different going in and doing that instead of robbing them?

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: It's hard to imagine these guys, with their jokes and gray hair and canes and years of good behavior, to be a threat to anyone. But these men weren't in prison decade after decade after decade because they were still a threat. They were in prison because they deserved it. For the most part, everyone around this table is a murderer. Almost everyone here has killed someone. Talking about it at these meetings is supposed to remind them that just as the world changed, hopefully, so have they.

WELLS: A lot of guys don't have a true understanding of what we have done to our victims.

SULLIVAN: Greg Wells isn't joking this time. He spent 36 years in prison for being an accomplice to the murder of two people during a robbery.

WELLS: One guy said, well, all my victims are dead. But it goes way beyond that. It goes to their families. It goes to your family. It goes to you. It goes everywhere. You have to have empathy - it's just a must. And in a penitentiary, that's a weakness.

SULLIVAN: In the early 1970s, a life sentence in Colorado, like most of the country, actually meant 10 years with parole. But in 1976, crime was rising. Colorado lawmakers responded. A life sentence became 20 years with parole. In 1985, it became 40 years with parole. Then in 1990, Colorado followed the majority of states nationwide.

Life became the rest of your natural life, no parole. In years to come, no one sentenced for their crimes at this table will be released. No state will be able to fill this table. Most of these men spent about three decades in prison. Think about where you were 30 years ago - if you were even alive. Think about spending every day since then in the same room. But there's no self-pity here, they know better. And a lot of that's because of the former inmate at the head of the table, a man named Red Thorpe.

RED THORPE: It's hard for us to talk about it out loud - it is. Somewhere along the line, we feel sorry for what we've done.

SULLIVAN: Red Thorpe's the leader. The program was modeled after him. After 25 years in prison, he went from motel handyman to college instructor. Now he mentors everyone in the room.

THORPE: We feel bad because of the pain and suffering we've inflicted upon others. Until you come to grips with that, the rest of you is a facade.

SULLIVAN: Outside, after the meeting ends, Greg Wells asked me if I saw John Huckleberry at the prison. He says Huckleberry's got a parole hearing soon. He wants to know if he's still talking about cars.

WELLS: That's my boy.

SULLIVAN: You miss him?

WELLS: Oh yeah.

SULLIVAN: John Huckleberry walked into prison a first-time offender at 40 years old for killing his wife.

WELLS: When he first came to prison, we kind of took him up under our wing, myself and a couple of other guys, and it just became like a family.

SULLIVAN: I asked Wells what will happen to Huckleberry if he doesn't make it through the LTOP program.

WELLS: He'll probably die in prison.

HAND: I'm not advocating for people to be released.

SULLIVAN: That's Tim Hand. He's sitting in his office at the Division of Parole.

HAND: What I'm doing is looking at a reality that they are getting released. Shame on us. Shame on us for seeing people in our prison system that are eventually going to be released and giving them nothing - nothing to prepare them for it.

SULLIVAN: Then a few months later, in the fall of 2012, a meeting gets underway at 7:30 a.m. in a downtown Denver office building.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 2: Good morning, everybody. And welcome.

SULLIVAN: It's a meeting for a program called community corrections, which is similar to parole. Several of the inmates wearing the green jumpsuits are up for consideration. It's just a show of hands, as 50 or so inmates names are read off a list. Two LTOP members are passed over. And then...

SPEAKER 2: OK, then we have John Huckleberry with the LTOP program. All in favor?

SULLIVAN: A lot of hands shoot up.

SPEAKER 2: Opposed?

SULLIVAN: Fewer hands.

SPEAKER 2: Accepted.

SULLIVAN: And just like that, for John Huckleberry, 30 years in prison are behind him. A few hours later, Sterling prison supervisor, Wesley Wilson, steps into Huckleberry's cell. Huckleberry's not even blinking.

WESLEY WILSON: John, you have been accepted for community corrections in Denver.

HUCKLEBERRY: It's just overwhelming.

SULLIVAN: Huckleberry grabs hold of the bunk bed. After a few minutes, he starts looking around under the bed and pulls out a small photo album. He wants to talk about that day.

HUCKLEBERRY: That's Beverly right there.

SULLIVAN: This is...

HUCKLEBERRY: Yeah. That's our wedding.

SULLIVAN: Huckleberry killed Beverly, his wife, three days after Thanksgiving in 1983. They were fighting. They didn't have any children.

HUCKLEBERRY: I was in a truck and she was standing on the curb. And I do remember looking behind, you know, in the truck but instead of the truck racing backwards it bolted forward. It hit the curb, hit her, came down on top of her.

SULLIVAN: Are you saying it was an accident?

HUCKLEBERRY: No, I'm not saying that. The split second that it happened, I wanted to hit her. And I wanted to hurt her. I even think I thought about it, you know. That's why I always thought, you know, I deserved to come to prison, you know. I mean, to be real honest about it, you know, she was a good person.

SULLIVAN: Huckleberry's cell is tidy but what he owns doesn't make a whole lot of sense. He's got sweatpants he's never worn, handball gloves he's never used, a legal box with nothing in it.

HUCKLEBERRY: I have the box because I can have it. You see that coffeemaker up there? I don't drink coffee. I have it because I can have it. (Laughing) OK?

SULLIVAN: This room is his whole world.

HUCKLEBERRY: The things that you can have become very important and personal to you.

SULLIVAN: In a couple weeks, his world is about to get a lot bigger than sweatpants and empty boxes. He got married over the phone, years ago, to a woman he corresponded with, but he hasn't seen her in three years. He's going to need to find a job, learn how to take the bus, pay rent at the halfway house.

HUCKLEBERRY: I have no fear at all - no anxiety whatsoever. Just elation that I'm going, you know.

SULLIVAN: That won't last. Two weeks later, John Huckleberry takes all his handball gloves, sweatpants and coffeemakers and wheels them across the prison to have them shipped home. He's all business. He's leaving prison the next morning.

HUCKLEBERRY: They're checking my stuff and getting me some clothes ready to leave.

SULLIVAN: Officer Julius Romero looks at the cart and sighs.

JULIUS ROMERO: Last guy only had two books.

(Laughter)

HUCKLEBERRY: Yeah. Well, you know, last guy wasn't here 30 years. (Laughter)

SULLIVAN: The next morning, a bus carrying Huckleberry from the prison pulls into a local jail. Huckleberry steps out looking pale white and climbs into a van to take him to the halfway house. His hands are shaking. No chains, no handcuffs, no green jumpsuit. As the van pulls out past the gate and onto the street, 70-year-old John Huckleberry is free. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

CORNISH: Tomorrow we will continue our story on how older inmates cope in the real world and whether or not they deserve that chance.

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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