Aging population strives to make a positive difference - from behind bars

Inmates in the Senior Structured Living Program play wheelchair basketball once a week.

Inmates in the Senior Structured Living Program play wheelchair basketball once a week.

There was something a bit different about this arts and crafts class. Conspicuously absent were women working on latch-hook rugs, beaded jewelry and paintings.

Instead, the crafters were dressed in denim blues - inmates of the Northern Nevada Correctional Center.

"Due to longer sentences, mandatory sentencing, tighter parole policies and longer life spans, growing old in prison is a reality for many inmates," said Mary Stewart, psychologist and program administrator.

The Senior Structured Living Program, begun in April, was designed to benefit the senior population by keeping inmates active and occupied. It consists of inmates, staff and community volunteers working together to provide help in areas of physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs to offenders within a correctional setting.

Stewart was asked by Dorothy Nash-Holmes, administrator of prison programs for the Nevada Department of Corrections, to create a program for elderly inmates, including those who would eventually die in prison.

Working with limited resources, Stewart designed and implemented the first of its kind correctional geriatric program - "True Grit." Programs at NNCC are not affected by changes recently implemented at the Nevada State Prison.

"The program provides humane care for the aging population," Stewart said. "It has created a support group within themselves so they can talk about their illnesses. But they have to want to be here and be a part of the program."

Activities include physical exercise, music, arts and crafts, mental health, literature, video therapy, pet therapy, spiritual, theater arts, bingo and pedometer program - all operated at no cost to the state. Materials for arts and crafts, theater, music and others have been donated.

When an inmate completes a craft project, it is donated to the Carson City Senior Citizens Center's Gift Shop, where it is sold. Proceeds are donated to the Meals on Wheels program.

"Everything that comes in here is donated," said Ralph Savarese, 71, inmate and coordinator of the arts and crafts class. "Everything we do is donated back.

"It's pretty crowded in here today. We'll have to work in shifts."

Stanley Brooks, 55, is working on a beaded lanyard. A few call it short of a miracle he is participating in the program.

"I have a bad heart and chronic diabetes," Brooks said with a smooth, deep voice. "Before this program, I spent 23 out of 24 hours a day in bed. Now I do this, play guitar and softball. It gives me something to be proud of."

Once a month, Brooks goes to the infirmary and plays guitar and sings. Friday, he sang "For the Good Times," and was joined in song by inmate Billy Driver. Brooks then sang "Big Joe" and "Phantom 309," a group favorite.

"With the Delta dog (pet therapy) program, to have the dog look at you without judging you - that's something. Then for the dog to lick your cheek ... I'm a tough old buzzard, but that gets to me.

"This program allows us to feel more human. It allows us to feel emotions we've had buried for so many years."

According to NNCC Warden Don Helling, a person is 70 percent more likely to be incarcerated if both parents have been incarcerated, and 50 percent if one (parent) has been incarcerated.

"Nationally, if the female is incarcerated, the child is five times more likely to be incarcerated," he said.

Helling supports Stewart and her efforts of the program. Both are seeing some inmates make fewer visits to a doctor or the infirmary.

"Anytime you put a positive with an offender, it makes it easier on them and us," Helling said. "We have seen marked improvement in behavior and mental sharpness and physical activity. We have a lot of inmates who want to get into the program. That's another way to see the effectiveness."

"Since April, the program has resulted in fewer infirmary visits, less psychotropic medication use and a more positive atmosphere in the elderly inmates' housing unit," Stewart added.

John Shine entered the program in October. He has a prosthesis from an amputation of his right lower leg.

"This program does good things for me," Shine said, who was in the gymnasium to participate in wheelchair basketball. "It's good to get with the fellas."

Jerry Duncan, 82, was encouraged by younger inmates who are volunteers with the program, to get involved.

"Ray (Butler) got him to come out of his room," said Brian Lepley, 41. "Now look at him, he's physically much better and he's having fun.

"It gives me a smile to see somebody do something they didn't think they could do. And it makes me feel useful."

One of the oldest inmates, Fred Huston, 86, has been in the program since it began.

"I'm part of the emotions and feelings group," Huston said. "It teaches me how to cope."

Volunteer Phyllis Gafford assists with spiritual outreach, diversion therapy, physical exercise and arts and crafts.

"They (inmates) have been very receptive to the program," Gafford said. "And the warden is behind Mary 100 percent. It really has been a blessing for the inmates. They enjoy it very much."

Ruth Stacy, a program volunteer, recently discussed "ethical wills" with the inmates. An ethical will allows the inmate to put into writing reflections of their life, which can then be given to their family.

"It helps them to understand themselves and the real value of their life," Stacy said. "It's a way for them to ask for and give forgiveness."

Volunteer Dan Lediard is involved with Alcoholics Anonymous programs which have transformed into a men's support group with a 12-step flair.

"I come in two or three times a month," Lediard said. "I am touched by the depth of what these men share. This is to help them see the goodness in themselves. It just blows me away."

Stewart has worked as psychologist for the Nevada Department of Corrections for seven years. Over the previous 20 years she has worked with state corrections departments in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, primarily in assessment, supervision and treatment of juvenile and adult sex offenders.

-- Contact Rhonda Costa-Landers at or 881-1223.


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