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Picture This: Documenting the quiet lives of elderly California inmates




Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Frank Fuller, age 66, stands alone in the prison yard during free time after breakfast at California Men's Colony prison on December 19, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California. Fuller is helped through his daily life by the Gold Coats program, a volunteer care program where healthy prisoners care for elderly prisoners who either need general assistance with mobility and every day life or who also struggle with Alzheimer's and dementia.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
David Barnhill (L), a prisoner and member of the Gold Coats program, makes the bed for fellow prisoner Frank Fuller, age 66, at California Men's Colony prison on December 19, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California. Fuller is serving a 35-years-to-life sentence; he has been incarcerated since 1990. He has been in the Gold Coats program for over six years. He says he is serving time for the murder of his third wife, who he says he shot with a rifle in a drunken rage after learning she had been having an affair with another man. He has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from serving five years in the Navy in the Vietnam War; he also has Hepatitis C. Fuller, who took shrapnel in his legs from a mortar round, says he held many different positions while fighting in Vietnam, including being a machine gunner; he says he still suffers occasional flash backs. He says has served one other sentence for murdering a man with a .45 caliber gun in a fight. Between Vietnam and prison, he says he worked in the oil fields and in manufacturing. Barnhill says he has volunteered with the Gold Coats program for "a few years." "I had been a pretty selfish guy most of my life," Barnhill continues, "I thought I had to avoid my emotional life at any means necessary, but about 6 years ago [the prison officials] encouraged me to confront that."
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Anthony Alvarez (L), age 82, eats breakfast with Phillip Burdick, a fellow prisoner and member of the Gold Coats program at California Men's Colony prison on December 19, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California. According to Alvarez, he has been incarcerated for 42 years due to a series of burglaries, possession of illegal firearms and escapes from county jail. Eventually these convictions led to him getting a life sentence due to three-strike laws. "I never shot anyone," Alvarez said, "I had the chance but I could never shoot anyone." Today is Alvarez's first day being assisted by the Gold Coats; he largely needs help with mobility. Alvarez tries to work out for a few minutes every other day. He says he would like to apply for compassionate release, a program where prisoners are released from prison after being found no longer a threat to society, or if a doctor deems that they are within the last six months of their life. Phillip Burdick, age 62, has been volunteering with the Gold Coats for over 18 years - he is the longest serving member of the Gold Coats. Burdick, who says he became a Christian in prison over 30 years ago, has served 37 years on a 7-years-to-life sentence for first degree murder. "Being a Christian man, I know God has a plan for everything," Burdick says. When asked why he joined the Gold Coats he responds, "I was attracted to helping other less fortunate than myself - I can't imagine doing anything better in prison." He hopes to work in a similar line of work if he is released.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Anthony Alvarez (R), age 82, waits in line for breakfast while being assisted by Phillip Burdick, a fellow prisoner and member of the Gold Coats program at California Men's Colony prison on December 19, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Anthony Alvarez (L), age 82, waits for the daily prisoner count while sitting on the floor of his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 19, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Jim Robelen, age 76, a hospice care patient diagnosed with terminal pulminary fibrosis, watches television in the morning in the hospice care wing of California Medical Facility (CMF) on December 17, 2013 in Vacaville, California. Robelen has been in prison since 1994 after being convicted of murder; he has been at CMF since 2011, and in the hospice care wing since October of 2013. He spoke glowingly of the doctors and the chaplain of the CMF hospice care. While California has a compasionate release program for terminal patients in the last six months of life, the decision is ultimately made by judges, who frequently deny the request. CMF's hospice was the first of it's kind, originally created in the 1980s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The program currently holds 17 beds. When a patient arrives in CMF's hospice, doctors immediately apply for compassionate release.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
John Gillis (the prisoner's name has been changed at his request), age 73, grimmaces while an open wound - a development due to terminal colon cancer - is treated by fellow prisoner and hospice care worker JP Madrona, in the hospice care wing of California Medical Facility (CMF) on December 17, 2013 in Vacaville, California. Gillis is serving a 30 year sentence for a crime he chose to not disclose. He was diagnosed with cancer in April 2013; doctors currently expect him to live another three months. Gillis says he has lost 70 pounds over the last six weeks, though he won't take pain medication. Gillis believes terminal patients should be allowed out of prison, stating, "there's no need for [holding terminal patients in prison] - who's a threat to society in here?"
Andrew Burton/Getty Images


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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."