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California Men's Colony deals with dementia among aging criminals

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.

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?” Read more on nytimes.com »

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