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‘The Only Way We Get Out of There Is in a Pine Box’

Elderly, ailing and expensive, lifetime prisoners cost Louisiana taxpayers millions a year.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Lester Pearson hoisted himself out of a chair and poked through his wallet with creased hands, fishing out a medical card showing that his pacemaker is due for a new battery.

Pearson was fitted with the device in 2006, at the now-closed Earl K. Long Medical Center here, in a rare trip outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He was 69 then and four decades into a life sentence for murder, which in Louisiana means death in prison.

This article was published in partnership with The Times-Picayune | The Advocate.

Now 84, Pearson wears bifocals and grips a prison-issued cane to get around.

“I ain’t healthy,” he said. “I don’t feel bad, but since I got my pacemaker, that’s when I kind of started losing balance.

“As the years go,” he added, “it gets a little worse.”

Louisiana is increasingly charged with watching over geriatric prisoners like Pearson, who was among the oldest and longest-serving lifers in the state until he was released in October under a deal with Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams.

Recent legislative reforms aimed at lowering the U.S.’s leading incarceration rate had reduced the state’s penalties for drug and other non-violent crimes. But they largely kept in place stiff sentences for people convicted of murder and other violent crimes, after prosecutors and sheriffs balked.

The result is a state prison population that has rapidly aged, contributing to a steady rise in prison medical costs, even as incarceration levels fall steeply. Much of that money is spent to care for geriatric people, who some experts say pose little risk of committing new crimes.

Total medical spending for state corrections eclipsed $100 million last year. That’s an increase of about 25% from 2015, according to state budget figures.

The state population of incarcerated people peaked above 40,000 a decade ago, and remained just under 36,000 when the 2017 reforms passed. State figures from this year show the population at about 27,000.

Those reductions, primarily affecting younger defendants facing shorter prison terms, helped Louisiana drop a hair below Mississippi as the nation’s top per-capita jailer in 2020, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics figures.

One outcome: In 2015, the typical incarcerated person in Louisiana was just over 36 years old. Today, the typical prisoner is nearly 41, according to a recent state budget document.

Those in prison for life pull up the curve. The typical Louisiana lifer today is a 52-year-old Black man who has been locked up for a little over two decades, an analysis of state corrections data shows. Over 80% of Louisiana lifers are men over the age of 40.

Elderly people are lying in beds in a geriatric ward.  A man with white hair and a white beard is combing his hair.

The geriatric ward at Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, in 2017.

“We just got rid of the cheaper ones,” said Edward Shihadeh, a Louisiana State University sociology professor who developed the state’s assessment tool for its incarcerated population. Keeping people in jail for life means the state must pay for them “until the pennies go into their eyes,” Shihadeh said.

He described the rise in medical costs for elderly prisoners as “exponential” in their later years, with virtually all of it borne by the state.

“If we release them, they become a Medicare or Medicaid issue, but because life means life, the only way we get out of there is in a pine box. Louisiana taxpayers must foot the entire bill.”

Now, one in six people incarcerated in Louisiana has been sentenced to die in state custody. Nearly 1,200 lifers are over 60. Those geriatric lifers make up nearly 5% of the state prison population.

When it comes to public safety, older lifers pose little threat, experts say. Shihadeh and other researchers studied recidivism — how many people released from prison commit new crimes — among several hundred long-serving Louisiana prisoners in 2013, including people who were pardoned and others made eligible for parole after serving 20 years and reaching age 45.

The recidivism rate dropped to “essentially zero” among those who had served more than 26 years, their research found. Recidivism was particularly low among those convicted of murder.

A 2017 U.S. Sentencing Commission report on aging federal prisoners found a significant decline in reported crime with age.

Nearly two-thirds of federal prisoners released under age 30 were rearrested within eight years, compared to one-sixth of prisoners released at 60 or older, the report found. Older prisoners who reoffended also committed less serious acts.

“You look at all of these variables of offending, and age is by far the most powerful predictor and always has been, and interestingly, is for all places,” said Marcus Kondkar, a sociology professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. “It’s not just a U.S. thing.”

State corrections officials say the number of Louisiana prisoners 60 or older has risen by half since 2013, to about 2,500.

Burl Cain, the former Angola warden who now heads Mississippi’s corrections department, and others have described a tendency for prisoners to age out of crime in their 40’s or 50’s as “criminal menopause.”

Kenneth Womack, 73, said it hit him at 45, after a year on “lockdown” in a cell block at Angola’s Camp D in 1991.

He was convicted of murder in New Orleans for setting up a botched robbery that turned fatal. Womack wasn’t accused of being present for the killing, but he said “the plan was mine, so that made me just really more guilty” than the shooter, who also got life.

Sentenced in 1969, Womack logged 52 infractions over his first few decades in prison.

Kenneth Womack, an elderly man, wears a long-sleeved green shirt and wears dark-rimmed glasses and a baseball hat.

Kenneth Womack, 73, who was incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for more than five decades, did not incur any infractions at the prison after age 47.

He overpowered a prison guard and tried to escape in 1971, at age 22, disciplinary records show. Womack said he clocked the guard in the face with the blunt end of a cane knife and took his gun, but he never made it off the prison farm. Womack said he also ran a card game in Angola and dealt marijuana and pills, though he’d avoided drugs on the street.

“My attitude was about like a badass, getting into a lot of stuff. Nothing good was coming out of anything I was doing: using drugs, selling drugs, gambling,” he said of prison life.

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“I come out (of lockdown) in ’92. I told the board, ‘You’re probably not going to believe me, but I’m gonna run straight to the church house.’ I went into population, did what I told them I was gonna do.”

Records show no infractions after 1993 for Womack.

Pearson had a quieter life at Angola, with 19 infractions, mostly for contraband or disobedience. They ended in 1996, when he was 59.

He entered Angola in 1965, convicted of murder in the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old discharged soldier he’d met in New Orleans' French Quarter that day. They drank at a bar and then exchanged words in a car in the Gentilly neighborhood before a 27-year-old Pearson fired once.

“After I got older, it was a lot of fights I didn’t want to be around,” he said of his record in prison.

Womack and Pearson both pleaded guilty when they were prosecuted to avoid the death penalty at a time when state law gave lifers a shot at freedom with good behavior. Then lawmakers eliminated parole for life prisoners in 1979.

The men were released under separate deals engineered by advocates with the Louisiana Parole Project, working with prosecutors in Orleans Parish who have endorsed the releases of more than three dozen life prisoners in Williams’ first year in office.

Lester Pearson, an elderly man, wears a white long-sleeved shirt, glasses, and has gray hair and a gray beard.

Lester Pearson, 84, spent more than five decades in prison before being released in October under a deal endorsed by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams.

Williams is the state’s only district attorney to launch such a wide-ranging review of cases. He succeeded district attorneys who for decades led the way in sending people to prison for life.

New Orleans now accounts for nearly one in five of the state’s 4,141 life-without-parole prisoners, though the city’s population is less than one-tenth of the state’s.

Absent parole, life prisoners can still leave Louisiana prisons alive, but the odds remain slim.

They can petition the pardon board, but the pace of hearings is slow. The board has recommended clemency for 214 life prisoners since Gov. John Bel Edwards took office in 2016. Edwards has commuted the life sentences of 64 of them — a little less than a third.

Those odds mean many other lifers don’t bother, said Andrew Hundley, who was sentenced to life at Angola as a young person. He was paroled in 2016 after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, and he is now executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project.

“These guys have been programmed to believe they’re not getting out,” Hundley said. “Why would a Lester Pearson, who is old, spend the time completing the application and going through the rollercoaster?”

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Incarcerated people who are disabled or are dying can win release under medical parole, or a newer medical furlough program.

But those releases are relatively rare: Medical parole, which is not available to those convicted of first- or second-degree murder, has been granted to fewer than 10 prisoners on average, each year since 2006.

Medical furlough is even rarer, according to figures from the state pardon board. The corrections secretary can also grant compassionate release for prisoners who need skilled nursing or for prisoners with a life expectancy under 60 days. There have been 119 compassionate releases since 2011.

In the meantime, more than 100 Louisiana prisoners die each year, federal data show. Nearly half are lifers, according to state corrections data.

Some families of crime victims say that’s only just, arguing there is more to the equation than cost or risk to public safety. To Josie Dardar, whose restaurateur father, Mario Gioie, was gunned down in 1983 in St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans, the pendulum already has swung too far toward mercy.

“My dad was 53 years old when he was wiped off the face of the earth. The families are the ones that are left behind with the life sentence,” Dardar said.

She and her family pleaded successfully in 2019 to keep the state parole board from releasing Gioie’s killer, Earl Smith, now frail in his 70’s, under a medical furlough. Smith remains at Angola.

“Why would it matter, the age?” Dardar asked. “This crime was committed. This life was taken. These murderers took a life. What does age matter?”

Shihadeh, the LSU sociologist, pointed to the tradeoffs, arguing that the high costs of locking up old people suggest a needed correction.

“The next psychological hurdle that we as a society have to come to terms with is — even with violent offenders — we’ve got to start thinking about risk and the cost of keeping them. We just can’t have it all,” he said.

Pearson said he wasn’t looking to win his freedom when it arrived after 56 years.

“I just put in my mind, I ain’t gonna get out,” he said. “So I just — ain’t nothing I can do. I wasn’t the only one. None of us was getting out.”

Jeff Adelson of The Times-Picayune | The Advocate contributed to this story.