An aging population

From the Eugene Register-Guard, February 10 2009

Junction City prison plan strives to handle growing needs

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series looking at the state’s plan for a new prison near Junction City, and the many older and mentally ill inmates who would be incarcerated there.

William James Owens began his final evening in an Oregon prison by punching a window until his knuckles bled. He spent the night kicking his cell door.

The next morning, when corrections officers entered his solitary-confinement cell, Owens rose from the floor and stabbed himself repeatedly in the neck with a broken ink pen.

Before the day was over, Owens would be pepper-sprayed on three occasions, rushed by five correctional officers in SWAT gear, struck with a shield and kicked or kneed six times.

After spitting up blood while lying face down with his hands cuffed behind his back, Owens would stop breathing.

The April 29, 2002, death of Owens at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario was ruled accidental, according to an Oregon State Police investigation. An independent review by a disability rights group concluded that the lengthy confinement of a severely psychotic prisoner on a unit used to punish regular inmates, coupled with prison staff’s inadequate training in dealing with inmates like Owens, permitted his hallucinatory frenzy to spiral into his death.

Seven years later, the Oregon Department of Corrections is planning to build a new prison near Junction City in which, officials say, such severely mentally ill inmates would be dealt with far differently.

The 1,262-bed medium-security lockup just south of town would include 462 beds for mentally ill inmates — double the number at any of Oregon’s existing 13 state prisons.

In addition, the proposed Junction City men’s prison would house up to 214 physically ailing, impaired and aging inmates.

The medium-security prison is planned to open in 2014. It would follow construction of a 532-bed men’s minimum-security prison as part of the same correctional complex, due to open in 2012.

Both are contingent on the 2009 Legislature’s approval of $350 million or more of bonds to pay for construction. Another portion of the 240-acre parcel of state-owned land is designated for the construction of a mental hospital.

Never before has Oregon — nor, do its corrections officials believe, any other state — set out to build a prison that would primarily house inmates with serious medical and mental health needs.

Even with the dedication of so many new prison beds to the incarceration of inmates with special medical or mental needs, Department of Corrections Director Max Williams acknowledges that Oregon has far more inmates with special needs than facilities and staff to deal with them.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to get everybody with a significant health problem there,” he said. “But we are going to be able to accommodate a greater number of them.”

Oregon prisons currently house more than 6,100 inmates with mental illness, one-third of whose illnesses are considered “severe.” That represents a fourfold increase in the past decade.

The number of inmates older than 45 also has spiked, though not as sharply. These inmates have grown in number from 1,350 a decade ago to 3,350.

Cost of health care

Oregon State Penitentiary inmate Roy Castro’s stated reason for his numerous return trips to Oregon and California prisons is not uncommon.

“I wound up being a criminal messing with drugs,” he said.

Castro’s age, though — he turns 70 next month — puts him in somewhat rare company among state prisoners; only 583 of the state correctional system’s 13,600 inmates are older than 60.

Corrections officials say the 1994 mandatory-minimum sentencing law is a big reason that older inmates represent a fast-growing segment of the prison population. A decade ago, the system locked up only 161 prisoners older than 60.

Castro perches his frail frame on the edge of a bed in the penitentiary infirmary. With a raspy wisp of a voice, he describes the crimes for which he’s spent most of his life behind bars: burglary, robbery, drugs and sexual assault.

Castro said his health was fine until he reached his mid-60s. Since then, his ailments have included migraine headaches and heartburn. It was his heart disease, and quintuple bypass, that landed Castro in the infirmary for post-operative recovery.

If he’s released as scheduled in 2010 from the state penitentiary, Castro will have to return to federal prison to serve time for a parole violation. He’s hoping his advancing age and poor health will punch him an early ticket out of the federal pen.

“If they keep me, they’re going to have problems,” Castro said. “I’m going to have to be hospitalized again.”

Castro’s hope is pinned to a financial reality that corrections officials are confronting nationwide. Thanks to legal rulings, inmates can claim constitutional rights to health care services. And unlike their counterparts outside prison, aged state inmates’ care isn’t picked up by the federal government through Medicare or Medicaid; states must pay the entire cost.

Nationally, the cost of incarcerating an elderly inmate is three times that of a regular one, according to the National Institute of Corrections.

Many of them are so impaired that they’re unable to climb stairs, clamber onto an upper bunk bed, or move around without the assistance of walkers or wheelchairs, said William Hoefel, health services administrator at the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Williams said even middle-aged inmates present a medical burden on prisons.

“A lot of these guys have done really horrible things to their bodies and preventative health care has not been high on their lists,” he said. “So a 50-year-old presents a lot more like a 70-year-old, for the purposes of the level of medical care we’re required to provide.”

David Rogers, executive director of a Portland-based prison reform group, said he appreciates that the state is planning for its aging prison population. At the same time, he questions whether Oregon should spend so many taxpayer dollars building and running an operation to lock up people who are unlikely to harm others or repeat crimes.

“Why would we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on special-needs beds for a geriatric prison unit?” asked Rogers, of Partnership for Safety and Justice. “I mean, is there a real public safety threat here?”

Similar questions prompted the Oregon Senate’s budget chief, Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, to suggest recently that the state release inmates who are older than 65, as long as they’re not serving time for murder and aren’t considered a danger to others.

Unless the Legislature or Oregon voters enact such a policy change, the state will continue to confront a growing population of aging and ailing inmates.

Segregation units

When it comes to mentally ill inmates, their growing numbers are forcing state prisons to house them alongside general-population inmates. Especially in segregation units, where prisoners are sent to be disciplined in solitary-confinement cells, this mix of mentally lucid inmates with others who suffer paranoid hallucinations and psychotic episodes can make things even more chaotic for the mentally ill, said Jana Alayne Russell, administrator of the Behavioral Health Services Division at the Department of Corrections.

“Their symptoms are activated by the noise and the screaming and the taunting by the bad inmates,” she said.

The result can be increased safety risks for corrections workers and other prisoners, as well as for the mentally ill inmate himself.

Owens was such an inmate, according to the medical and mental health records reviewed for an independent report on his death by the Oregon Advocacy Center.

Owens was serving a 20-year attempted murder sentence after trying in 1988 to kill his grandmother, whom he believed was inhabited by “an evil intruder,” according to the report.

During his years in prison and the Oregon State Hospital’s unit for mentally ill lawbreakers, Owens was diagnosed with several forms of mental illness. Throughout that time, he experienced psychotic episodes in which he was convinced of a conspiracy to torture or kill his family, according to prison mental health records and an interoffice memo written by a prison system doctor.

At times, he harmed himself; at others, he attacked other inmates, convinced they were plotting against his loved ones outside the prison walls.

In an apparent contradiction of Corrections Department policy, the report said, such an episode led to Owens’ assignment to the prison’s Disciplinary Segregation Unit, which is meant for general-population rather than severely mentally ill inmates, and where staff receive no training in dealing with prisoners in the throes of violent, psychotic episodes.

Once confined there, Owens did not receive daily evaluations of his mental health as required by department policy, and had stopped taking anti-psychotic medication three days before his death.

“Had Mr. Owens been referred for mental health services upon his initial refusal to take medication, his suffering and death would likely have been avoided,” the Oregon Advocacy Center report concluded.

Lack of treatment

Mental health advocates and prison experts — both within and outside prison walls — say the rise in the use of methamphetamine helps explain the rising population of inmates with mental problems.

Chronic abuse of meth can leave its former users with paranoia and hallucinations for months and even years after taking the drug.

Inmate Frank Voth, who’s been imprisoned since 1989 — before the rising popularity of meth as a street drug — said he’s seen its effects on the mental condition of those incarcerated in recent years.

“Without a doubt I associated it with the drugs,” said Voth, 45, who was sentenced to 212 years for first-degree rape and kidnapping. “Guys my age are very healthy because we weren’t doing those kinds of drugs.”

Another factor, experts say, has been the reduction in community-based treatment. In Oregon, budget cuts in 2002 reduced the number of mental health caseworkers by 1,000, which meant treatment services were reduced to at least 50,000 people, according to Gina Nikkel, executive director of the Association of Oregon Community Mental Health Program. Since then, only half those reductions have been restored.

Without treatment, such as drugs to control their psychotic episodes, many of these people ended up committing crimes, Nikkel said. And while some were admitted to the Oregon State Hospital, others ended up in county jails or state prisons.

A study published last month by Harvard researchers underscores that pattern. It found that two-thirds of chronically mentally ill inmates nationwide were off treatment at the time of their arrest. Only after incarceration did most of these people receive treatment.

“For many of them, treatment of their mental illness before their arrest might have prevented criminality and the staggering human and financial costs of incarceration,” study co-author Dr. Steffie Woolhandler said when the report was published by the American Journal of Public Health.

The Junction City prison is being planned as Oregon enters another economic recession and another round of proposed budget reductions. Some, such as Oregon Advocacy Center director Bob Joondeph, are predicting that if those cuts turn more mentally ill people away from community based treatment programs, this new prison will have no shortage of inmates to lock up.

“As the night follows the day, I think you’ll see that if there are cuts in this area, they will translate out to more business for (Oregon Corrections Director) Max Williams and local jailers and the state hospital.”

EXTRA – data table included with this story showing numbers of inmates designated as needing treatment for mental illness (
EXTRA – Managing Mental Illness in Prison Task Force, Findings and Recommendations, October 2004
EXTRA – Report of a review of the mental health treatment, restraint and death of William James Owens in the Oregon correctional system Disability Rights Oregon, 2003