The elderly in prison don’t fight well, was my thought when I saw Isaac hit the infirmary floor. Just not quick enough. Isaac was a lean 6-foot-3 and a Marine Corps veteran of the two tours in Vietnam, but at age 77 he dropped like a tower of empty beer cans. Tweaker, so years younger, had rocked him with a right hook to the rib cage. In slo-mo Isaac collapsed sideways, his arms useless to break his fall. His cranium traveled farther and faster than the rest of his body and snapped against the plaster wall, leaving him unconscious. Tweaker grabbed Isaac’s expressionless head with both hands and repeatedly slammed it on the floor.
“You’ll shut…” SLAM
“…the fuck…” SLAM
“…old man.” SAM SLAM SLAM SLAM SLAM
Prison is a Mind Your Own Business environment, and had this happened in a crowded cell house or dorm I’d probably have said nothing and went about my day. Not probably, but certainly, because this scene was nothing new. But the ten-bunk G-2 infirmary unit housed only the two combatants, me, and a wheelchair-bound obese black man I called Bedbug, so I didn’t have the luxury of diluting my social responsibility into a pool of others.
“HEY!” I feebly sat up, tethered to an oxygen machine.
Bedbug was with me: “Hold up, youngster, you can’t be doing him like that!”
“Ya’ll can shut the fuck up too.” Tweaker didn’t eyeball us, though still focused on the near-dead old man. Then he resumed the activity that had annoyed Isaac–sitting on a plastic chair in the shower with the curtain open, letting hot water stream out of the bathroom.
All Isaac had said was, “I’m not mopping that up.” But, being old and accustomed to being ignored, he said it about fire times in five different ways before Tweaker came flying out, wet and enraged.
Several minutes passed. My bifocals helped me ascertain that Isaac was still breathing. He groaned a few times, then rose just high enough to do the Fosbury flop onto his bed. Blood soaked his pillow, but he wouldn’t notice for a few days.
An hour after the drama, whether it was coincidence or from the wall camera, an inmate orderly came to the door and hollered for Tweaker to move.
“Hey, Tucker! The C.O. says you’re supposed to be in G-1, not G-2.”
G-1 was for the wild ones, like Tweaker, coming off drugs or healing from a stabbing or beat-down. G-2 was for geezers.
Isaac had been there eight weeks, waiting on a prosthetic shoe to fit the amputated front half of his foot. He’d lost the foot, he related, because of his wristwatch.
The elderly in prison don’t protect their property well, was my thought as he explained the wristwatch–foot connection. Isaac’s “230-dollar Casio” was a prized possession he hid in his shoe at night. Creepers in his 110-man dorm habitually slithered along the floor after lights out, opening lockers and collecting items to trade for dope. On a midnight urinal trip, Isaac forgot about the watch and gashed his sale on the metal band. It sliced him so clean, he didn’t feel it.
“In the morning, John-Boy saw the blood on my sheets and I was like, what the hell happened?”
Self-reliant, he wrapped the gash in cloth and hobbled on. Infection set in. He blamed the extraordinarily filthy shower room as the bacteria source. When his toes turned purple he sent in a health care request. By the time he was seen, the toes were black and smelly, and it was too late.
The elderly in prison of ten don’t get good health care, was a thought I’d held for years. It could be argued that since Isaac hadn’t promptly notified anybody of his problem, the results were on him. But when he requested help it took ten days to see the doctor, a delay that allowed the infection to prosper. In my own case, nurses ignored my COVID symptoms until, on the tenth day, I was unable to walk and declared an emergency. Arriving by ambulance at an outside ER, the doctor asked me why I didn’t come in sooner. Two weeks in the ICU ran up a $98,000 bill for the taxpayers.
Medical delays, also known as “deliberate indifference” in the legal arena, are the norm, as if the standing policy is to wait out any ailment to see if it improves on its own. Delay tactics even extend to urgent care.
A week earlier we had watched the nurses depart on an emergency call to the E-dorm. Quick-step walk with a rolling stretcher. Isaac’s neighbor, Lou, age 70, was the “man down.” Ten minutes later they were casually wheeling Lou to medical. Stiff. Dead from a heart attack. We ;earned from witnesses that no actions were taken by anybody to keep Lou alive. Prisoners qualified to do CPR were not allowed to touch him. The nurses initially presumed he was on drugs (the default presumption) and told him to get up. Lou stubbornly refused. Checked his pulse. None. “You sure? Yep, he’s dead.” The urgency vanished, and they tossed his body onto the gurney, like cordwood, and departed.
A free-for-all then commenced on Lou’s unguarded property.
My friend Carl’s job in A-cellhouse is to push a 79-year-old prisoner in his wheelchair. The geezer insists on never missing the 4 a.m. breakfast, where he dawdles with oatmeal and tries to gam down a biscuit. The denture policy, which proliferates nationwide, is to deny the prisoner dentures until he can prove weight loss from not being able to eat. In other words, “Starve and we’ll give you dentures.” This guy’s a steady 130 pounds, so he makes do with a solitary incisor.
Carl teases him, “It’s good to know my friends and family are safe out there as long as your old bony ass is locked up, you menace to society.”
The prison wheelchair population keeps growing as the prison population ages. Those long, punitive sentences–they only get served by old-timers, never by the young men who did the crimes.
My former tennis partner, “Hot Rod” Brandenburg, finally got his wheels after his Parkinson’s disease made it impossible to walk. He had been stumbling along, hanging onto a fence for 300 yards, to get a meal. I helped him with a petition for compassionate release, but like anything sent to the Indiana parole board, it was like dropping a feather in a well and waiting to hear the echo. No acknowledgement, no reply, no action. In 16 years, I’ve never seen a prisoner released due to age or infirmity.
The elderly in prison have death sentences. When I cut Isaac’s hair he told me our Catholic chaplain, Dr. Link assured him there’s “something in the works” to get him released. Dr. Link must be referring to the same kind of spiritual release. Isaac has served 26 years of a Life sentence and will not be seeing a parole board, ever. No cavalry was coming.
Isaac hadn’t received a haircut in three months, so he welcomed my Wahl trimmer. The long mustache in the mouth was a problem. I put a straight line on it. Beard is a problem too. Whack, whack, whack, it’s gone.
“I’ve never cut anyone’s hair before.”
He shrugged. “What could possibly go wrong?”
I buzzed the silvery threads off his ears, left him with a mullet, and sized up my debut handiwork.
“You look just like Johnny Knoxville!”
“Who’s Johnny Knoxville?”
I hesitated. “A daredevil. Dashingly handsome. Made the movie Bad Grandpa. You look like a bad Grandpa.”
Isaac smiled, “I’ll take it!”
He cleaned up nice, with a little dignity restored.
Had Isaac been in federal prison, he’d have had a good chance of getting out. A prisoner over 65, with serious deterioration due to age, who has done at least 10 years or 75% of his sentence, qualifies for compassionate release. No such law exists in Indiana. Here, as it is in most states, hundreds of cells are occupied by senior citizens long past their rambunctious days.
Tweaker gets out in November.
- Tweaker/Tucker is a pseudonym
- Isaac is the baptismal name of Charles D. Sturgeon, and what he prefers
- The federal compassionate release law is 18 USC Appx. 1B1.13
- Written May 18, 2021
- My next book, to be published under my Ivan Denison pseudonym, will be “SUE MEDICAL AND GET PAID: Enforcing Your Prison Health Care Rights in Federal Court,” due out in 2022.
Ty Evans is serving time in Indiana.