Age-related illness catching up with death row 

Randy Haight wakes every morning to sore hands and a creaking body. The 59-year-old blames the pain on arthritis — something that he describes as rampant at his home for the last 17 years — Kentucky's death row.

"It gets a lot of these guys," Haight told The Associated Press in an interview at the prison in Eddyville.

Other than the recreation time, Haight and the 33 other men housed in the Kentucky State Penitentiary's unit for condemned inmates spend their days in cells that are 6 1/2-feet wide, 13-feet long, and 12-feet high. It's a forced lifestyle that, inmates and experts say, has accelerated age-related health problems for the condemned population — causing hands to ache, knees to pop and hips to degenerate.

Kentucky's 35 death row inmates (including one woman held in a different prison) are an average age of just more than 50 years old — an average of 14 years older than the 23,000 inmates in the Kentucky prison system. Condemned inmates have waited more than 16 years for execution, three years longer than the average prison sentence in the state, and 15 have been on death row for two decades or more.

All that time has been spent living a sedentary life in close quarters in a setting that doesn't change much.

"They don't get any kind of stimulus," said Ronald Aday, a sociology professor at Middle Tennessee State University who has studied death row inmates. "They're aging in place with very little interaction."

Some states are using hospices or medical parole to tackle the aging inmate population. Across the country, Human Rights Watch found, 8 percent of the prison population in 2010 was 55 or older, compared to 3 percent in 1995. That's not an option for inmate sentenced to die in Kentucky, so the state is left housing them and paying increasing medical expenses.

While the state doesn't keep separate statistics for the death row population, medical expenses for the Department of Corrections have risen each year since 2008, from $49.1 million that year to $54.8 million in fiscal year 2011. Corrections Department spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said death row inmates get the same level of care as the other 23,000 inmates in state custody — regular access to doctors and medications when necessary.

Aday said death row inmates tend to age quicker than those in general population, with a 50-year-old showing signs of chronic illnesses normally seen in a 65-year-old on the outside.

Fifty-six-year-old Robert Foley arrived on death row as a relatively healthy 38-year-old. These days, Foley, a large, muscular man awaiting execution after being convicted of killing six people in Laurel County, gets around with the assistance of a walker, a wheelchair and his death-row friends. Foley's hip has deteriorated, he said, to the point that even sleeping has become excruciating.

"It's painful, believe me, very painful," Foley said. "I sleep next to nothing, maybe an hour or two a night."

The prison makes efforts to accommodate the aging population by responding to complaints. Prison officials and Foley recently settled a grievance over access to religious services by allowing other death row inmates to carry his wheelchair or walker while Foley goes up several steps into the chapel.

Kentucky public defender Jamesa Drake, who once worked with the Project for Older Prisoners at George Washington University and now represents Foley, said prisons are not equipped to house geriatric inmates.

"Prison is no place to grow old," Drake said. "We are failing in that regard with respect to the growing number of elderly and infirm inmates."

Kenton County Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders, a vocal proponent of the death penalty, said the state should find a way to accelerate the pace of executions so aging condemned inmates aren't an issue.

"When voters start making timely executions a priority, the legislature will take steps to speed up the process," Sanders said.

Kentucky has executed three people since 1976, with the most recent taking place in 2008. In that time, seven death row inmates have died of health-related causes ranging from cancer to kidney failure.

Currently, Kentucky is under a judge's order barring executions because of issues with the lethal injection procedures. The order stopped the last scheduled execution in 2010 and the case is pending.

Some inmates, such as 55-year-old Michael Dale St. Clair, condemned to death for kidnapping and killing a man in 1991 in Hardin and Bullitt counties, figure the life on death row will kill him before an execution does.

"Mother Nature has first mortgage on my death," St. Clair told the AP.

The long stretch on death row and health issues sometimes pushes an inmate to consider beating the state to his death by committing suicide, said Haight, sent to death row for killing two people in Garrard County after escaping from custody in 1985.

"It's crossed my mind a few times," Haight said. "It's truly a fine line ... being able to live in this kind of environment."


Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere is on Twitter:

Pin It

More by The Associated Press

Latest in Health & Fitness

© 2019 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation