The Vanishing Mind
Life, With Dementia
By Pam Belluck
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Secel Montgomery Sr. stabbed a woman in the stomach, chest and throat so fiercely that he lost count of the wounds he inflicted. In the nearly 25 years he has been serving a life sentence, he has gotten into fights, threatened a prison official and been caught with marijuana.
|Dementia is a fast-growing phenomenon in prisons that many are not prepared to handle. |
The California Men’s Colony is using convicted killers to care for inmates who
can no longer care for themselves.
Despite that, he has recently been entrusted with an extraordinary responsibility. He and other convicted killers at the California Men’s Colony help care for prisoners with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, assisting ailing inmates with the most intimate tasks: showering, shaving, applying deodorant, even changing adult diapers.
Their growing roster of patients includes Joaquin Cruz, a convicted killer who is now so addled that he thinks he sees his brother in the water of a toilet, and Walter Gregory, whose short-term memory is ebbing even as he vividly recalls his crime: stabbing and mutilating his girlfriend with a switchblade.
“I cut her eyes out, too,” Mr. Gregory declared recently.
Dementia in prison is an underreported but fast-growing phenomenon, one that many prisons are desperately unprepared to handle. It is an unforeseen consequence of get-tough-on-crime policies — long sentences that have created a large population of aging prisoners. About 10 percent of the 1.6 million inmates in America’s prisons are serving life sentences; another 11 percent are serving over 20 years.
And more older people are being sent to prison. In 2010, 9,560 people 55 and older were sentenced, more than twice as many as in 1995. In that same period, inmates 55 and older almost quadrupled, to nearly 125,000, a Human Rights Watch report found.
While no one has counted cognitively impaired inmates, experts say that prisoners appear more prone to dementia than the general population because they often have more risk factors: limited education, hypertension, diabetes, smoking, depression, substance abuse, even head injuries from fights and other violence.
Many states consider over-50 prisoners elderly, saying they age up to 15 years faster.
With many prisons already overcrowded and understaffed, inmates with dementia present an especially difficult challenge. They are expensive — medical costs for older inmates range from three to nine times as much as those for younger inmates. They must be protected from predatory prisoners. And because dementia makes them paranoid or confused, feelings exacerbated by the confines of prison, some attack staff members or other inmates, or unwittingly provoke fights by wandering into someone else’s cell.
“The dementia population is going to grow tremendously,” says Ronald H. Aday, a sociologist and the author of “Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections.” “How are we going to take care of them?”
Some prison systems are confronting that now. Many would like to transfer demented inmates tonursing homes, but their often-violent crimes make states reluctant to parole them and nursing homes reluctant to take them.
New York has taken the top-dollar route, establishing a separate unit for cognitively impaired inmates and using professional caregivers, at a cost of about $93,000 per bed annually, compared with $41,000 in the general prison population. Pennsylvania and other states are giving mental health workers special dementia training.
But some struggling prison systems, including those in Louisiana and California, are taking a less expensive but potentially riskier approach. They are training prisoners to handle many of the demented inmates’ daily needs.
“Yeah, they did something horrible to end up here,” said Cheryl Steed, a psychologist at the California Men’s Colony, where prisoners who help inmates with dementia are called Gold Coats because their yellow jackets contrast with the standard-issue blue. But without them, she said, “we wouldn’t be able to care for our dementia patients very well.”
After escorting Joaquin Cruz to an appointment, James Evers, a Gold Coat, was returning him to their adobe-colored cellblock when they encountered corrections officers strip-searching inmates for missing tools.
Mr. Cruz, 60, who barely recalls that he is in prison for killing someone who sold him fake cocaine, grew confused and resistant when guards tried searching him. “He has Alzheimer’s,” Mr. Evers managed to explain. “It’s not that he’s refusing to do what you’re asking.”
At the prison, shadowed by seacoast mountains, Gold Coats are paid $50 a month and have better knowledge of impaired prisoners’ conditions than many prison guards. Gold Coats, trained by theAlzheimer’s Association and given thick manuals on dementia, were the first to notice when Mr. Cruz began putting his boots on the wrong feet and “started pulling down his pants and going to the bathroom wherever he was,” said Phillip Burdick, a Gold Coat who is serving a life sentence for beating a man to death with a hammer.
Gold Coats report these changes, often at weekly support group meetings with Dr. Steed. They identify “different tricks and strategies to get guys to do what they need to do,” she said.
Before the program was started in 2009, demented inmates frequently caused fights, hitting those they considered threatening or disturbing other prisoners by encroaching on their turf. “The whole atmosphere was hostile,” said Bettina Hodel, a psychologist who started the program and once narrowly avoided being struck herself. Now, Gold Coats absorb much of that behavior.
© 2012 The New York Times Company
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