Sex Offenders Fill Geriatric Wards of U.S. Prisons Experts say it's the only crime that offenders are more likely to repeat with age: sexual abuse. And now, prison wards around the country are filling up with geriatric sex offenders. Laura Sullivan takes an inside look at one Pennsylvania prison.
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Sex Offenders Fill Geriatric Wards of U.S. Prisons

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Sex Offenders Fill Geriatric Wards of U.S. Prisons

Sex Offenders Fill Geriatric Wards of U.S. Prisons

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Sex offenders in their 60s, 70s and 80s have become a growing problem in the nation's prisons. It's the only crime where the older you get the more likely you are to repeat your offense. The costs of caring for these often frail and seriously ill men are soaring.

Now NPR's Laura Sullivan has a rare look inside the geriatric ward at one Pennsylvania prison. And a warning, some parts of this story are graphic and disturbing.

LAURA SULLIVAN: The floors are squeaky clean linoleum. The walls are painted in dull pastels. The inmates spend their day sitting in the hallway in wheelchairs doing absolutely nothing.

Unidentified Nurse: Okay, you ready?

DALE: Yup.

SULLIVAN: A prison nurse has come to fetch Dale, a 63-year-old from upstate, to cover his feet in ointment.

DALE: This is preventative or maintenance, you know. I call it slime.

SULLIVAN: Dale is diabetic, had a stroke and can't feel his legs. He came to prison six years ago.

DALE: The offense was indecent exposure, indecent assault and corruption of a minor.

SULLIVAN: There are two kinds of inmates in this geriatric ward of Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands Prison: lifers, mostly here for murder, and sex offenders. Dale is a sex offender. He's pretty typical one here, too. First-time offender and his victim was a child. Dale sexually abused his grandson.

DALE: You can dominate a younger person to where you make them feel like it's alright and stuff like that. I was fortunate - I look at it like that - that I got caught the very first time it happened. It's something that you don't talk openly about. I know it's shame, is what it is.

SULLIVAN: Is it something that came on later in life or is it something that you had all along but that you were able to keep in control?

DALE: When I was younger, of course, a young teen, we had a cabin up on a hill and we experimented and stuff like that. But it was docile all the way through my marriages.

SULLIVAN: Prison officials have asked that we not use the inmates' last names.

Dale had never been in trouble with the law before. He was well known in Pennsylvania's rural Tioga County, where he was a retired state road inspector. Here he keeps to himself.

Some of the men in this ward abused children all their lives and only got caught when they were old. But others are like Dale, who started late in life. Dale says he began have sexual fantasies involving children in his late 50s after his wife died.

DALE: You do this for control and for self-gratification and things like that. I would say it's more prevalent at age 50 and over.

Ms. SUSAN KING (Psychologist): It's very hard to figure that out. I think at times they're perplexed - we certainly are - as to why this would suddenly happen.

SULLIVAN: Susan King has been the prison psychologist here for seven years. She runs the sex offender programs.

Ms. KING: I think part of it with the elderly, they are still sexual. There might be frustrations, and they act it out on children because they are an easier target. Your performance doesn't maybe have to be as up to your normal standard for you to offend a child.

SULLIVAN: There are 110 inmates on this ward, almost half of them are sex offenders. It's a phenomenon happening in prisons across the country.

Once, the only inmates who made it to old age behind bars were those with decades long sentences. Now there's far less tolerance for sex crimes, and there's far more reporting when it happens, no matter what the age of the offender. But not many people in corrections expected to see so many elderly men.

The geriatric ward in this minimum security prison has a small recreation room with florescent lights and a television in the corner. There aren't any chairs because everyone pulls up to the tables in wheelchairs. One man is making an effort to use the weights, straining to lift five pounds.

There are unwritten prison rules here. Lifers don't mingle with sex offenders. Paul is a 74-year-old lifer. He murdered two people. He's glaring at a group of men sitting together in wheelchairs.

PAUL: I don't know who ever figured that one out, to send us here with them rapists, and everything. Child molesters.

SULLIVAN: One of the difficulties of operating a ward like this is that the two groups don't mix. It could be one of the reasons why many of the sex offenders here refuse to attend counseling. They're called non-admitters. Eighty-four-year-old Harry is one of them. He was convicted of abusing his granddaughter. He's been here since he was 74.

HARRY: First time I was ever arrested.

SULLIVAN: Like a lot of non-admitters, staffers say Harry was difficult when he first arrived. Harry says at his age, he just didn't like people telling him what to do.

HARRY: It's one hell of a shock until you get used to it. Then you adjust.

SULLIVAN: Harry's health is what concerns him now. He's got four more years on his sentence, and he really doesn't want to die here. He points to an oxygen machine just off the hallway.

HARRY: Thirteen pills in the morning, two at noon, and six at night. And then I use that machine over there three times a day.

Ms. PENNY SINES (Prison Counselor): This is our most medically involved out of the four units.

SULLIVAN: Prison counselor Penny Sines swings open the door to another rec room. This one is for men who can't get out of bed. It costs taxpayers more than $75,000 each per year to house geriatric inmates, three times the cost of younger men. This unit has one full-time doctor, 14 nurses and 15 dialysis machines.

Donald, a 69 year old from Erie, is lying on a bed with wheels.

DONALD: Once you're in this chair and you can't get up, slowly your body starts to deteriorate. From my waist down, it's just useless.

SULLIVAN: Donald says he has never talked about what he did to his children's 13-year-old baby sitter. For 27 years, he's refused all counseling. But on this day, after a while, he says he wants to tell the story, his version of it.

DONALD: I'd be watching television, and she wanted to always sit on my lap. And every time she sat on my lap, she wanted to squirm around. I told her, look, go on the couch, sit on the couch and squirm around. Don't do it on me. So she would laugh and giggle and jump on my lap again after I pushed her off.

My wife would come in there, and she said don't do that. It's inappropriate to do this. Well, things got a little heated up, and I was drinking, and things happened.

SULLIVAN: In some of the programming that they offer here, you have to really take responsibility for your own actions.

DONALD: Right.

SULLIVAN: Do you think you could benefit from a program like that?

DONALD: To this day I still regret it, you know. It still bothers me, what I had to do, if I liked to do it or not, I regret it.

SULLIVAN: Do you think that you're a danger to little girls?

DONALD: No. Nothing like that whatsoever.

SULLIVAN: The statistics don't agree. For those like Donald who have never had counseling, the numbers aren't good.

Two studies, one from the Justice Department and one from Norway, found that unlike all other criminals, sex offenders are more likely to start committing crimes, or keep committing them, in old age.

I asked Penny Sines -

SULLIVAN: Can older sex offenders be reformed?

Ms. SINES: That is the controversial question, isn't it? I have a lot of older guys say that the sex offense is a disease, that it will always be with them. And as long as they continue to get treatment, they hopefully will not reoffend.

SULLIVAN: Most men here will probably not get that chance. The sex offenders in this ward usually die here before their sentences run out.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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