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Twilight behind bars

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Fingers" has done the math.

He figures it costs the state of Maryland $105,000 a year to keep him here in the hulking House of Correction in Jessup: to cut away his cataracts, to fend off his heart attacks, to tend the 72-year-old body of a lifelong thief.

Let him out, and the federal government would pay about $4,800 a year in Supplemental Security Income benefits that are cut off every time Fingers, known in his voluminous court files as Edward Scott Hodgester, goes to prison. "That's a $100,000 savings," harrumphs the great-grandfather serving 10 years for burglary. "Do you need me in jail?"

It's the multimillion-dollar question of the moment, as state officials tackle the task of figuring out how to keep taxpayers from footing monstrous bills to keep a growing criminal population behind bars.

In announcing recently that he does not intend to parole inmates with life terms for murder and rape, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he would make exceptions for prisoners who are old or terminally ill. The governor also announced a plan to come up with different ways to deal with "nonviolent" inmates, who might be housed less expensively through home detention programs, halfway houses or other alternatives to prisons.

Studies have shown that convicts tend to mellow as they grow older, and that they have a less than 10 percent probability of committing crimes after age 55.

And it can be frightfully expensive to care for elderly prisoners. While prison officials can't verify Fingers' calculation of what he costs, they do know that it takes $25,000 to $30,000 to pay for the average Maryland prisoner each year, and that studies have shown older prisoners often cost three times that.

In an oasis from the cacophony of the House of Correction, called M-dorm, a collection of 46 men shows just how individual -- and how complex -- these evaluations can be.

There, Fingers is among a group of men over 50 marking time. Along with him are inmates like Gordon Gaskins, serving life for a 1967 murder he calls a robbery that got out of control; Herbert Barnett, convicted of attempted murder, expecting AIDS to take him before old age; Floyd Taylor, convicted of attempted rape, who hopes to start a senior citizens' program to increase awareness of older prisoners.

About 3.6 percent of Maryland's 21,000 prisoners are over the age of 50, the point at which the National Institute of Corrections defines someone as old. Other than M-dorm and a unit for the disabled at the minimum-security Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, there are no geriatric facilities for prisoners, and no plans to create them.

No options

"We don't have an option," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who heads a program that seeks parole and alternative placements for older prisoners. "The question today is not whether someone will be released, but who?"

But there are other questions. Who is old? Who is risky? And how does one decide?

According to Division of Correction records, none of the five oldest inmates in the system is serving a life sentence. All have sentences of less than 15 years, for crimes ranging from battery to second-degree murder.

The oldest inmate in Maryland's system, Albert Dingis, is 88 and living at the Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore, according to prison records. He has been there for the past three years on a charge of theft -- for which he was convicted at age 85. Records indicate he has been in prison before. (He declined a request for an interview.)

"When our folks started taking a look at the folks we had who were old folks, we were taken aback," said Dr. Anthony Swetz, an assistant commissioner for the Division of Correction.

A recent experiment, in which corrections and parole officials reviewed the cases of 200 of the oldest and least violent inmates for possible release, yielded only a few worth banking on, said Maryland Parole Commission Chairman Paul J. Davis. He thought more would have qualified.

On this tier, some men are serving time for murders older than the guards who watch over them. A few have been locked up only recently, and for the first time. Others, like Fingers, are doing life on the installment plan.

Life in M-dorm

To live in M-dorm, you must be at least 50. The men play cards and pool, and protect each other from the increasingly young and dangerous inmates in the 1,197-man population at the place residents call "The Cut."

They rise early -- breakfast is at 5 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m. In between, those who can work at prison jobs do so. On weekends they play pinochle and bridge in the dorm.

Four private showers are available for 46 men. The dilapidated stalls are still a luxury when compared with the group showers other prisoners use.

The men bought themselves one of those all-over weight machines to try to stay in shape. They say it worked about five minutes and has stayed broken for two years. A tiny exercise bike, a mid-sized television and a delicate green vine are nearby.

The men say fights among their ranks are extremely rare. For the most part, they have learned to tolerate the irritable tempers that can accompany age, they say.

"It's like a community. There ain't no stealing. You can lay everything out on your bed, and ain't nobody going to take it," said Hercules Williams, 51, who is serving life for conspiracy to murder.

"Time is doing that," said Hannah Coates, the prison's volunteer activities coordinator. "Time and looking at the other prisoners come in has brought them to that, and to a calmness."

In M-dorm you will find life-term inmates such as David P. Brown, 52, who wears his hair in a pompadour that Elvis would envy, doing the time for a 1965 murder. A crucifix dangles in his gray chest hair. An eagle is tattooed on one hand and a leopard on the other, and in those hands he often holds a binder with some 40 certificates and awards earned behind bars.

He likes to note that he came in only with his high school diploma. Like others in M-dorm, he mourns the loss of Pell grants and other programs that gave prisoners hope of gaining skills that would help them on the outside.

Yet Brown was given a chance on the outside -- he was paroled once, but ended up back in prison on a federal charge for possessing a stolen savings bond.

Gordon Gaskins, 66, had a second chance too. He's been locked up and paroled twice since the 1960s. He was free for eight years before an assault conviction in 1990, and the resulting parole violation, sent him back to do the rest of a life sentence for murder.

He resembles nothing more than the character Mr. Clean, with a gleaming bald head, expressive gray eyebrows and a torso toned to the envy of much younger men. His "house," with its coffee pot and shelves of textbooks, is reminiscent of a college dorm room, except that it has at least four copies of the Bible and no door to close.

The murder -- of the manager of the Suburban Club of Baltimore County during a 1967 holdup -- he calls the unintentional byproduct of a robbery gone wrong. The assault case that put him back in for life on the parole violation, he terms a "misunderstanding."

And there is Herbert Barnett, 54, a 6-foot-7-inch barrel of a man whose full face is a road map of scars from a car accident half his life ago. His nickname is "Dog," because, well, just because it is.

He has been sick with the AIDS virus for the past three years. He has served 10 years of a 22-year sentence for assault and attempted murder. He doesn't know whether it was using dirty syringes that caused his condition or something else, but tapping his chest, he says: "I fault me."

Like others in M-dorm, Barnett says he wants to do something to speak out and end the cycle of violence, sickness and death that surrounds prison.

"Every young boy in here is coming in for murder," he said. "The father, confined. The mother, confined. So what are they supposed to do?"

Their dream -- and they recognize it is a pipe dream, given the crimes some of them have committed -- is the creation of a senior citizen halfway house, a place where they could re-create the life they've made in M-dorm, only have more freedom. They want to have seminars where congressmen and senators would come to learn about old people in prison. They're trying to start a senior citizens' program to help themselves.

Fingers is one of the vexing cases -- and, in some ways, an argument for new programs that provide more supervision than parole, but less than in prison.

He is a small man, wearing jeans and a purple sweat shirt. Lately he has been wearing a natty tweed cap to cover the short haircut he doesn't like, which he calls "young boy's hair." His sallow eyes are streaked with red and seem to have sunk into the bags of skin below them, giving him a permanently mournful look.

He was born Feb. 24, 1923, or June 23, 1924, depending on whether you rely on Fingers or his prison records. "They make mistakes," he says, shrugging, when asked about the discrepancy. The first arrest on his record came when he was 15 and was accused of stealing a bicycle in Paterson, N.J. "Again," Fingers said cryptically, "they make mistakes."

In 1989, a 65-year-old Fingers was arrested after what police called six months of housebreaking in Bethesda and Chevy Chase. Authorities said he had been arrested 47 times since that bike incident and had one of the longest criminal careers Montgomery County senior Assistant State's Attorney John J. McCarthy had seen.

"It literally was one of those where, when you dropped the rap sheet, it fell to the floor and it was literally taller than you," Mr. McCarthy said.

Because of his age, because of his infirmities, Fingers got a break in 1989, Mr. McCarthy said. The prosecution could have asked for a 25-year sentence without parole because of his many prior convictions. That, Mr. McCarthy acknowledged, would have been "an ineffective use of bed space" because of Fingers' age.

The length of his record, its heft, is no mistake but his own. Fingers will admit that. Mr. McCarthy said he knows what will happen if Fingers is set free. "I'm convinced that if he is released he's going to commit more crimes, regardless of his age. He's more consistent than Cal Ripken."

But Fingers said he was never a danger to life, only property. Even the police said he never used a weapon. In the later years he broke the law to feed a raging heroin habit, something Fingers said he doesn't want anymore.

"When I wake up every morning on that hard bunk I sleep on, I ache everywhere," he said. "Had two heart attacks, my stomach's messed up, my nerves are shot. If I wanted to commit a crime -- if I had the desire to commit one -- my body wouldn't let me."

"A criminal I may be. But I'm also a human being."

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