SOMERSET – Though he doesn’t like to dwell on it, Charles is fully aware of the fact that he could die within the sterile walls of the Somerset prison where he is confined.
The 67-year-old spent the last four years at SCI-Laurel Highlands because of failing health. He’s lost his vision, his right leg and often prays for death.
“I would never hurt myself,” he said. “But there’s nothing here and there’s nothing on the streets.”
Charles isn’t alone. He’s one of hundreds of inmates assigned to SCI-Laurel Highlands because of poor health or rehabilitative needs who will more than likely die while serving their prison sentence. The state Department of Corrections does not allow media reports to include inmate’s last names, their crimes or certain personal information, but did allow a reporter and photographer inside the walls of the prison for elderly inmates earlier this summer.
More than 10 percent of the state’s prison population is considered “elderly,” with anyone 55 years or older being grouped into the category, according to the Department of Corrections.
Many, like Charles, are in poor health as a result of a preexisting condition. Others are recovering from injuries sustained while committing their crimes.
While prison populations continue to grow, so does the number of elderly inmates. Mark Bergstrom, the executive director for the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, said sentencing reforms played a large role in this trend.
“Typically, the majority of crimes are committed by young males between the ages of 18 and 25,” he said. “What has changed now is that we now have more mechanisms in place to increase sentences for reoffenders.”
For example, if an 18-year-old commits a crime, is sentenced to prison and then commits another crime after he is released, he will receive a more severe sentence the second time, Bergstrom said.
Additionally, inmates can receive more severe prison sentences if they are convicted of homicide or certain levels of rape. Typical sentences in these cases are the death penalty, life without parole and 100-plus years in prison.
As a result, Bergstrom said prison facilities like SCI-Laurel Highlands have been popping up around the country.
“They look like nursing homes,” he said. “It’s the state’s responsibilities to provide medical care.”
Annette Kowalewski, corrections health care administrator at SCI-Laurel Highlands, compared her operations to that of a small hospital. “Only the sickest of the sick come here,” she said. About 1,500 inmates were housed there as of June 30, out of state prison population of about 50,000 spread among 27 facilities.
The cost to operate a facility like SCI-Laurel Highlands is quite large. According to the DOC, for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, SCI-Laurel Highlands cost $75 million dollars to run, compared to $49 million to operate SCI-Mercer, which houses roughly the same number of inmates. The daily average that year to house an inmate hovered around $98.
Once a state hospital, SCI-Laurel Highlands was later crafted into a prison. In 1996, the Department of Corrections transformed several sections into medical wards after discovering that an increasing number of inmates were being removed from prisons and placed into hospitals for care. The wards at SCI-Laurel Highlands include hospice, dialysis, skilled and personal care. The prison can also accommodate inmates suffering from dementia and mental health problems. SCI-Laurel Highlands houses only male inmates. Females needing a higher level of care are still taken to hospitals.
Kowalewski said that the majority of the inmates on the skilled care unit eventually “end up dying in prison.”
“They either have life sentences or are here until they pass away,” she said.
Although in varying stages of illnesses, Kowalewski said all of the inmates are considered dangerous and are treated as such. Many of the registered nurses and other medical staff also serve as guards.
As the years creep on, three death-row inmates from Washington and Greene counties may eventually meet their ends at SCI-Laurel Highlands. Jeffrey Martin, who was sentenced in Greene County, and Roland Steele and Michelle Tharp, both sentenced in Washington County, are just a few of the 185 inmates who were sentenced to death in the state. Of that number, just three are women. The majority of male death-row inmates, 150, are housed at SCI-Greene.
Martin, Steele and Tharp were convicted on first-degree murder charges, which Washington County Chief Public Defender Glenn Alterio said is still pretty rare.
“The homicide rates in Washington have not increased that much over the years,” he said.
Instead, Alterio said he expects to see longer and more severe sentences in the county in response to the growing drug epidemic. In order to combat further prison population growth, both Alterio and Bergstrom said the state introduced new programs.
“They are trying to identify offenders who would benefit from drug treatment instead of prison,” Bergstorm said. “There are also recidivism risk reduction incentives and intermediate punishment options.”
Both include special treatment programs. The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole is also being more flexible with inmates classified as nonviolent, Bergstrom said.
But for some, the new programs may not be enough. In a wheelchair after a car accident left him paralyzed, Terrence knows he could die before his 5- to 20-year sentence is complete. Sent to SCI-Laurel Highlands two years ago because of his medical needs, Terrence hopes to be paroled once he reaches his minimum sentence. If not, the 40-year-old said his health may fail prior to his mandatory release.
“You try to keep your mind off the worst,” he said of the possibility. “You can write family and friends, make phone calls and talk to the other guys. You just have to stay strong.”
Charles agrees. As he slowly loses his 34-year battle with diabetes, Charles’ 3 1/2- to 7-year sentence has become daunting. Housed at other facilities before coming to SCI-Laurel Highlands, Charles has been here for the last four years. He blames his current condition on the treatment he’s received while in prison.
“This wouldn’t have happened if I was out on the streets,” Charles said.“I managed it better in the community. I was taking care of it. I don’t have the right food here.”
As his health continues to decline, Charles said he welcomes death. He occasionally discusses his dark thoughts with his fellow inmates, but said they tend to keep their conversations on a lighter note.
“We try to keep the conversation happy and light,” he said. “We don’t dwell on that fact.”
In the end, regardless of where it happens, Charles said his death will finally bring him peace.
“It would be a better place than here.”