Disabled Prisoners Settling Into New Unit

Monday, March 19th 2007, 7:43 am
By: News On 6

LEXINGTON, Okla. (AP) _ One month after it opened, the state's first prison unit designed specifically for inmates with disabilities is about three-quarters full, state Corrections Department officials say.

The facility at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington now has 189 inmates and is expected to soon reach its capacity of 262 convicts.

All the inmates have some form of disability, such as dementia, blindness or paralysis.

A study by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center indicates the state's inmate population is growing older, and more inmates will begin to suffer from debilitating conditions as they age behind bars.

Trittichuh ``Cotton'' Hicks, 85, was one of the first inmates at the new unit.

``If I had to go to a nursing home, I would just as soon stay in here,'' said Hicks, who is serving a 12-year sentence.

Hicks came to prison in 2000 after being convicted of child molestation. Because of new laws cracking down on child sex crimes, he won't be eligible for parole until he completes 85 percent of his sentence.

He will be 88 by the time he is first eligible for parole in 2010.

Hicks has limited mobility and found it difficult to get around in prison with a wheelchair.

``I was always bumping into the wall in there,'' Hicks said.

The resource center study found the percentage of inmates above age 45 has doubled since 1990.

Those inmates are more prone to illness and mobility issues, creating a need for facilities like the one in Lexington.

Jerry Massie, spokesman for the state Corrections Department, said he isn't certain how many Oklahoma inmates are disabled, but he is certain there are more than the unit can hold.

In the new unit, the cells were built in a wider layout to allow wheelchair access and have lower bunks for easier access. Showers were built to be more accessible, and a special room was built for dispensing medication. Most of the time, Hicks needs the help of an orderly to move around the prison.

``The way I look at it, it's my job,'' said fellow inmate Ronnie Minter, a reforming drug abuser who takes care of Hicks and a few other seniors in the prison.

Eventually, prison nurses will train a complete staff of inmate orderlies like Minter to take care of all the disabled inmates in the unit, Rector said.

``It seems like a simple problem to me,'' said Ged Wright, a former state senator and member of the state Sentencing Commission.

``If they are a threat to society, we keep them in prison. If they are immobile, why don't we let them out and let Medicare pay to keep them in a nursing home?''

Wright said the state spends too much on inmate health care. As the inmate population grows older, that cost will continue to grow, too, he said.