Cecil Williams has been locked up since 1986. "If you ain't got peace of mind, you can't do the time," says the 64-year-old, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.

Williams says he came to that peace of mind after being admitted to the True Grit, Senior Structured Living Program at the North Nevada Correctional Centre just outside Carson City.

It's one of a handful of prisons in the U.S. that accommodates older inmates by segregating them in geriatric ranges — a strategy Canada's correctional services is being urged to consider. A smaller number of American institutions even have assisted-living units and palliative care hospices.

Williams compares the segregated unit in North Nevada to an old folks home. There "ain't no stealing, no thievery, no bulldoggin', no bullying," he says. "We don't have none of that stuff because we're all the in the same age bracket."

Sitting on a thin mattress in the cell he shares with three other men, Williams says the inmates at True Grit watch each other's backs.

"We got a brotherhood, we're like family. These guys are my family. Twenty-six years, I know these guys better than my own family.

"So this is where I want to be, I guess."

Prison is for the young

True Grit is the creation of Mary Harrison, Nevada's sex offender co-ordinator and staff psychologist at the North Nevada Correctional Centre.

inmate-cecil-williams-280

Cecil Williams: 'We're like family' in here.

The medium security prison is home to more than 1,600 offenders. The 170 inmates admitted to the True Grit Program live in a separate unit. Harrison launched the program in 2004 after becoming concerned about the state's growing number of greying inmates, men who didn't fit the mould of a prison system designed for the young.

"When I was transferred up here in January of 2004," Harrison says, "I walked into the unit and at the time we had a lot of our men just lying in bed or they were sitting in wheelchairs in the rotunda, just sleeping."

These prisoners weren't participating in correctional programs, which meant they couldn't get paroled.

"We don't want to be a nursing home where someone's going to stay here and die," Harrison says.

"If they're going to come in here into this program they will take responsibility for the crime. That needs to happen so that we can get them involved in the programs that they can take so that they're eligible for parole."

Diversion therapy

P.O.V.

Should Canada have separate prison facilities for older inmates?  Take our survey.

True Grit is home to men between the ages of 55 and 86. To get in, offenders must have a proven record of good conduct, be clean and tidy and participate in therapies that treat their criminal behaviours.

There are programs for addictions, domestic violence, anger management, sex offences and victim empathy.

While non-correctional programs in the rest of the prison are geared to the young, with an emphasis on job training and obtaining a high school diploma, True Grit offers more than a dozen classes and activities that appeal to older people with different interests and physical abilities.

In the craft room, grey wool flies through Donald Scott's fingers. The 63-year-old is crocheting a hat. He arrived at True Grit two years ago, having already served 16 years for second-degree murder.

"The time goes by real fast in here," he says. "I've got two years in now and it seems like it was just yesterday that I started."

In the quiet room, a table is laden with blankets, hats, mittens, socks and toys. Sun streams through the barred windows.

All the handiwork is destined for homeless shelters, hospitals and troops serving in Afghanistan.

"It keeps them occupied," Harrison says. "This was one of our first diversion therapy programs," designed to give prisoners specific tasks to help reduce anxiety.

"When we started True Grit, I had a lady come in from the arthritis foundation. I said 'What do I do with these men in terms of diversion therapy?' She said, 'Get them crocheting.'"

'We're a target'

True Grit also focuses on meeting the health needs of the older offender.

Just like senior citizens living on the outside, many elderly inmates have health issues such as arthritis, heart problems, emphysema or dementia, conditions that can add significantly to correctional costs.

Canada's prisoner population

As of Sept. 11, 2011, there were 22,963 offenders under federal sentence in Canada.

  • 14,230 were in a penitentiary,
  • 8,733 were on some form of conditional release.

One in four offenders is over 50 years of age. Quebec has the highest percentage of aging offenders (26 per cent), the Prairies have the lowest (11 per cent).

Others have mobility problems that make it hard to get around, bathe or get dressed.

True Grit offers wheelchair aerobics, pain management classes and stretching sessions, as well as games and sports adapted to the abilities of the older prisoner.

Also, a psychologist comes in for weekly therapy sessions with inmates coping with the isolation that comes when aging friends, family and spouses can no longer pay visits or pass away.

Before launching the program in 2004, Harrison says half the inmates were on medication for depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. Today, only one is taking psychotropic drugs.

Before getting into trouble, several prisoners served their country, and Hal Shaw is one of them.

Every week the 67-year-old Vietnam veteran gets together with volunteer vets from the community and the other inmates who fought in the Second World War, Korea or Vietnam.

"It's camaraderie," he says. "We have something in common. When we came back from Vietnam we weren't welcomed the way the guys are now. In fact, we were told to hide our uniforms when we got on the bus pretty much."

Shaw also works in the "chop shop" five days a week, fixing and maintaining the unit's 120 wheelchairs.

He works alongside 67-year-old Allen Soules, a fellow inmate who teaches American Indian bead art on the side.

"I've been down for 14 years," Soules says. "I've been in regular prison and I've been in this ... and this is 100 per cent better."

Just as there's elder abuse on the outside, Soules says seniors are often scammed and abused on the inside in regular prisons.

"We're a target. We might not be as physically strong as we used to be or as mentally alert or physically alert and because of that the younger gentlemen can take advantage of it."

Taking care of your own

True Grit doesn't cost the state an extra dime. The craft supplies, wheelchairs and musical instruments are donated.

Community volunteers run more than a dozen non-correctional programs, everything from pet and movement therapy to theatre arts and Spanish.

inmates-crochet-280

Inmate James Hale participates in a volunteer-run knitting program. It's called diversion therapy.

Chesley Spring runs weekly creative writing and cultural perspectives groups. She says she gets a lot of sadness — and a lot of joy — from the experience.

"I think that this program gives them a chance to expand themselves in ways they couldn't before and in an environment where they won't get beaten up and hurt and so forth."  

Even so, the program has its detractors. Some say True Grit isn't gritty enough for men who've been convicted of very serious crimes.

"There are people who have their own personal attitudes or personal agenda," says Harrison. "Maybe [they] are people who've been victims and don't understand why we would provide humane care for others who have caused harm within the community."

But now that inmates are healthier and in better shape, fewer dollars are being spent on prescription medications and trips to the doctor, Harrison points out.

With programs tailored to their needs, she says, inmates are motivated to complete correctional programs and earn parole.

"Since we started this, people are getting out whereas before they weren't." Not only that, none of the men released back into the community has reoffended.

The American experience mirrors Canada's, at least to some extent, in that a growing number of people are spending their golden years behind iron bars.

Canada's correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, says the proportion of federally incarcerated inmates over the age of 50 has jumped 50 per cent in the last decade, to where they represent nearly 20 per cent of the total.

Almost 1,000 inmates are now over the age of 60.

Sapers wants the Correctional Service of Canada to hire more staff with expertise in palliative care and gerontology, people who could develop age-appropriate programs and activities for older offenders.

In his most recent annual report, Sapers said the department needs a strategy for older offenders and he noted that the older offender division, created in 2000, has "long since been abandoned" and that "none of its recommendations ever saw the light of day." Corrections Canada told CBC News it does not have units specifically designated for older offenders.

"Consistent with community practice and the preference of inmates, our approach is to accommodate older offenders in the general population as much as possible."

Across the country, the agency has 333 wheelchair-accessible cells and, as part of its expansion plans, another 100 such cells are in the works, it says.

inmates-vets-460

Vietnam and Gulf War vets from the Las Vegas area participate in a regular discussion group with inmates who are also vets, to talk about common issues and life on the outside.