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Picture This: Documenting the quiet lives of elderly California inmates

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Photographer Andrew Burton took a look at the programs and facilities that California has developed to deal with the challenge of a growing number of elderly prisoners.

Elderly inmates make up the fastest growing segment of the prison population in the U.S., and they pose their own set of challenges for prisons. States' "tough on crime" sentences have meant that people are staying in prison longer. As they get older, just like the rest of us, they often get sick and some are terminally ill. 

In California, the Department of Corrections has developed some unique programs to meet the needs of a growing number of elderly prisoners. 

Getty Images photojournalist Andrew Burton got a window into the lives of some elderly California prisoners. He joins Take Two as part of our occasional series, "Picture This."

Interview Highlights:

How did you come up with the idea to focus on older prisoners?

"I first watched a documentary called 'The House I Live In,' by Eugene Jarecki. That got me quite interested in the incarcerated population. From there I started doing research and came across a 2012 Human Rights Watch report called 'Old Behind Bars,' and it was about 100 pages long and a phenomenal trove of information about the skyrocketing number of elderly prisoners and the health costs that come along with them. From there I started contacting the department of corrections across the country and eventually gained access to California's."

What kind of access were you able to get?

"California was very accommodating, they allowed me to go into five prisons over the course of a week. There were two prisons I was especially focused on, one was California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, where they have a gold coats program where healthy and younger prisoners help elderly prisoners who are beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's and dementia. As well as the California Medical Facility, where they have a 17-bed hospice program for prisoners who are dying. That was the first hospice program in the prison system in the country."

Explain the gold coats program:

"Its a program run at the California Men's Colony and there are 11 total healthy, younger prisoners who have been proven to have a good track record as prisoners and they help elderly prisoners who have Alzheimer's and dementia and are [mobility] impaired. They help them from the moment they get up until the moment they go to bed. They help them clean their jail cells every morning and make their bed and oftentimes help them with food in the cafeteria and bathing if they need help with that."

Can you tell us about some of the men you met?

"I was quite moved by the prisoners that I met. These are men that, when they were younger, were violent and certainly posed a threat to society, but most of them have been in jail now for so many decades that they've been whittled down to very soft, kind of gentle elderly men. What I found interesting is that while their crimes certainly deserve punishment, in my opinion these men served no threat to society anymore. I had great conversations with a lot of these men. 

"I also came across men like Anthony Alvarez, this was an 82-year-old man, he served a 62 years to life sentence and he had served 42 of them so far. This was based only on three-strike laws, he had never killed anyone or raped anyone. He had a series of small burglaries, possession of firearm, and he had escaped from a county jail. For the most part I enjoyed getting to know the prisoners. I don't know what the right answer is when you're dealing with elderly prisoners, I think it's a tricky subject, but I found them to be profoundly kind and good people." 

Did you get a sense that your subjects that this time of their life is about reflection?

"I think you could say that, Mr. Alvarez is also just starting to suffer from dementia as well, so his mind is slowly becoming undone. I think for the most part these men have come to peace with the fact that they will be ending their lives in prison. He was a great conversationalist, he was a very warm, gentle man, and I enjoyed my time with him."

For the prisoners with dementia, is it possible that they're better off in prison, given the care they're given?

"This is certainly another issue that the state is having to deal with. There is a compassionate release program for prisoners who have less than six months to live. The problem is these prisoners oftentimes no longer have family or friends to go home to. Many times prisoners die kind of a lonely death still behind bars. There's certainly no easy answer to that question." 

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