SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Old and Out of Prison

Illness and addiction vex the life of an elderly ex-offender

by Noelle Yeager

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Bobby Grossi, Jr. wrestled with whether he needed to go looking for his father, an ex-offender who had a way of vanishing. Bobby didn’t really need to see the dust of white powder to know what his dad was chasing. Twelve and a half years in correctional facilities across three states plus time in six different rehabilitation programs and two therapeutic communities hadn’t cured or even tempered his father’s numerous addictions. But what had changed for the son was his own heightened sense of concern for his dad. This time his father was 60 and ill.

In the past, when his father was a younger man, Bobby dealt with his dad’s relapses with a degree of detachment. Though he worried, reality tempered his concerns. The man who was missing was a man Bobby, now 41, hardly knew. On this bender, however, the potential dangers of his dad’s exploits were not so easily dismissed. In prison, the National Institute of Corrections reports, chronological and physical years are two vastly different numbers. Inmates who serve significant time age some 12 years more rapidly than the average American. At 60, Bobby’s father had the broken body of an unhealthy man of 72.

His serial convictions, including the most recent four-year sentence he served for attempted burglary, add support to the science of recidivism. As reported by the Bureau of Justice’s statistics, convicted burglars have a 74 percent chance of being re-arrested. Perhaps naively, Bobby thought his dad had finally broken the cycle. Having paid for his crime with time, Robert "Bob" Grossi, Sr. was, as of March 2010, free once again. At first, it seemed like he was getting back on his feet, and the good friend with whom he was living reported as much. With a stable place to stay and $18,000 saved from an inheritance, Grossi, Sr. had more than enough money for a new start. Instead, he squandered it all on alcohol and drugs.

Rumors of prostitutes, crack houses, and drug dealers filtered back to Bobby, along with a photo of his father from prison. The man in the picture was unrecognizably aged. But the airfare from Reno, N.V. to Ithaca, N.Y. was too sizable an investment for Bobby to purchase a plane ticket. If this latest escapade ended in a funeral, so be it. Bobby was not going to go searching for his father.

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Until his release from the Greater Binghamton Health Center, a New York state mental health facility with a post-prison wellness program, Grossi, Sr. was among the now 2.3 million inmates housed in the U.S. penal system, a community that consistently outpaces regular population growth. From 1980 to 2010, while the U.S. population grew 36 percent, state and federal prison populations increased 400 percent. At the end of 2011, the Bureau of Justice reported that 1 in every 107 U.S. adults were incarcerated.

As reported by the Bureau of Justice, of 2011’s nearly 1.6 million inmates in U.S. state and federal prisons, some 246,600, or 15 percent, are over 50 years old and thus classified as elderly by the National Institute of Corrections, though this is not yet the common standard. In fact, each state has its own definition of "geriatric," making consistent data difficult to come by. Some set the age at 50; some 55. Dr. Patrick Vinck has encountered the problem repeatedly in his efforts to study data from the Bureau of Justice’s National Corrections Reporting Program. Vinck is a research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health who also contributes to the studies published by Human Rights Watch. "We have inmates for whom we don’t have the gender, and that would be information that would be pretty obvious to report about," he explained. "The quality of the data isn’t something that is improving. It’s certainly not enough."

Using statistics from the Bureau of Justice, the Human Rights Watch study Vinck assisted with found that while the number of prisoners in the system under the age of 55 grew only 42 percent between 1995 and 2010, the number of elderly prisoners grew 282 percent -- nearly tripling -- in the same period. Study these numbers, and a shockingly expensive trend emerges: By 2030, the ACLU estimates, more than one third of all prisoners in the United States will be classified as old.

This growth in the graying prison population is startling enough for Human Rights Watch and the ACLU to begin questioning whether it makes sense to keep aged and, in most cases, ailing offenders locked up. Does society really benefit from keeping a 60-year-old man with a disabling back injury jailed? It’s an important question. Few, however, pause to consider whether early release programs, the solution both groups favor, benefit elderly men like Grossi, Sr., an aging addict who has trouble staying clean. Since his release from New York state prison, Grossi has suffered at least three major relapses.

By 2030, the ACLU estimates, more than one third of all prisoners in the United States will be classified as old.

The enormous additional cost of housing older incarcerates is one persuasive argument for their early release. Each year, state and federal governments spend nearly $77 billion to keep criminals off the streets. On average, a prison will spend more than $34,000 annually to house a typical inmate. But an inmate over the age of 50 costs more than twice that amount -- an estimated $68,270 per year, the ACLU calculates. This figure includes the increased costs in medical care as well as special considerations for age-related issues such as decreased mobility. Using the ACLU’s figures, if all 246,600 elderly inmates were released, state and federal governments would save an aggregate total of more than $16 billion each year. So, why not just let the older prisoners out? Releasing elderly inmates who have pricey medical issues similar to Grossi, Sr. would no doubt save the prison systems a good bit of cash.

All the same, once on the outside, new issues emerge. Men of Grossi, Sr.’s physical and chronological age have a more difficult time than younger men when trying to rebuild the lives their incarceration put on hold. After spending a sixth of his life in state prisons, there is almost nothing fresh about Grossi’s new start.

“Your family has left you, you don’t know your children ‘cause you’ve been locked up so long they stopped writin’, she met another man and sent you a Dear John letter, [and] you can’t work ‘cause you’re not qualified,” Grossi, Sr. explained in one of a series of telephone interviews over the course of eight months. He speaks in contractions with a meditative Southern drawl. “Because” is always “cause,” “them” becomes “‘em,” and a gerund rarely ends in a final g. “Really,” he asked over the phone, “What do we got to look forward to?”

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There are names for men like Grossi, Sr. -- ex-convicts who make a habit of returning to correctional systems. “You can call me a three-time loser,” is the way he puts it, but repeat offenders and recidivists are the official labels. After time locked up in state penitentiaries across California, Texas, and New York, the man he could have been is a decaying memory preserved by yellowed photographs. Once, many years ago, in 1973, he was known as Bob Grossi, winner of the first of that year’s 250cc National motocross races. He had a contract, earned prize money, and rode a Husqvarna bike. But that was then. Nearly four decades later, at 62, Grossi, Sr. no longer owns a motorcycle. He doesn’t even keep a drivers license.

During his most recent incarceration, Grossi, Sr. had back surgery, suffered two strokes, and was strangled by a younger inmate. An old knee injury still pained him, a memento from his racing days. With missing teeth, a failing liver, and a mental breakdown during his New York prison term, Grossi, Sr. had become the perfect picture of a man who is classified as elderly by the National Institute of Corrections. And an aging addict, at that.

Since Grossi, Sr. completed all four years of his latest sentence, no parole was required. His good fortune was a second chance that few senior ex-offenders can count on. Jim Crawford took him in, giving Grossi, Sr. a place to stay. At Crawford’s home in Dryden, N.Y., a white house with a short driveway just before the bridge over Upper Creek, Grossi had the opportunity to rebuild his life.

The Crawford family home where Grossi, Sr. lived after prison.

The Crawford family home where Grossi, Sr. lived after prison.

Crawford volunteers for a religious outreach group in Ithaca called Community Faith Partners. He first met Grossi through the organization’s Life ExChange program while visiting the local Tompkins County jail before Grossi went to state prison in 2006. Though Crawford has dedicated much of his life to helping ex-incarcerates, something about Grossi, Sr. was special. It wasn’t every day that Crawford invited an ex-offender to live with him and his wife. But, in spite of this added support and considerable devotion, he had little luck reforming Grossi, Sr.

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“You’ve got to come to the end of yourself; you’ve got to hit bottom,” Crawford explained, reciting two well-worn mantras from Alcoholics Anonymous. Like many rehabilitation counselors, Crawford firmly believes that the 12 Step Program can work. First, however, an addict must be willing to make the commitment. “If you haven’t hit bottom, you’re still making excuses and you’re still -- you’re not sick enough of this way of living to do the difficult things.”

When Grossi, Sr. was staying with Crawford, bottom was still a long way off, and the route led him straight through that $18,000 relapse.

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The most compelling argument against the continued incarceration of men like Grossi, Sr. is the apparent low rate of recidivism for elderly ex-offenders. An ACLU study conducted in New York state prisons indicates only seven percent of inmates between the ages of 50 and 64 "returned to prison for new convictions." Increase the age bracket to prisoners older than 65, and the ACLU found that only four percent of ex-offenders re-enter prison within three years with a conviction for a new crime.

Unfortunately, the recidivism numbers used by the ACLU are deceptive, for only “new convictions” are considered when calculating the likelihood that an elderly ex-offender will be reincarcerated. While it is true that only seven percent of elderly ex-offenders return to prison after having committed a new offense, this figure does not include ex-offenders who violate parole. And a parole infraction can mean a number of things, adding complexity to the early release debate.

“You’ve got to come to the end of yourself; you’ve got to hit bottom,” Crawford explained.

Few would argue that it is fair or cost effective to spend nearly $70,000 per year to re-incarcerate an elderly parolee for appearing 15 minutes late for a meeting with a correctional officer. This was, however, the exact offense that returned an aging ex-offender from the Bronx to prison, explained Dr. Eric Manheimer, the former Medical Director at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. He is also the author of Twelve Patients, a memoir that includes stories of his work with inmates from Rikers Island, New York City’s largest correctional facility. This was not the first time Manheimer’s patient had been arrested for a minor infraction -- he was once returned to New York correctional facilities for walking his dog without a leash. This last time in prison, he was 59 and suffering from throat cancer; hardly a threat to society, in Manheimer’s view.

Drug use also constitutes a violation, the New York State Parole Handbook explains. And unlike tardiness or reckless dog walking, testing positive can have lethal consequences. Using data from 1999, the last year the Bureau of Justice did a comprehensive study on the success rates of parolees in U.S. state correctional systems, the bureau’s 2001 report found only 54.5 percent of those surveyed over the age of 55 were able to complete their early release programs. This percentage was the highest success rate out of any age bracket; but the number still leaves elderly ex-offenders with a near 50-50 shot at returning to prison.

Further analysis of these statistics shows that chances of completing parole are best when an inmate has served less than a 12-month sentence and is out on parole for the first time. In 1999, researchers found that only 21 percent of ex-offenders who had been “re-released” on parole were able to finish the program.

After examining the numbers and reviewing the statistics, the prospects for men like Grossi, Sr. -- men who have been confined in prison on multiple occasions and who have served lengthy sentences -- grow weaker with each new data point. In New York, in 1997, the Bureau of Justice reported that 40 percent of all parole violations were attributed to infractions, not new crimes. That same year, 16 percent of all parole revocations nationwide were drug-related.

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When talking about recidivism, Crawford believes there are only three things that free a man from criminality: becoming a father, falling in love, or “a genuine faith experience.” Each of these changes, Crawford argues, stems from the realization that someone is counting on the ex-offender to make an improvement. “You care so much about this other human being, and what they expect of you,” Crawford explained, “that you change your behavior.”

For elderly ex-offenders like Grossi, Sr., however, faith has not conquered addiction and it’s late in the life cycle to find motivation in family and love. He had already failed as a father, and, at 62, Grossi, Sr. has a running tally of three broken marriages. When he exited the New York state prison system in 2010, there was no one left -- no one besides Crawford -- who expected anything better of him. Certainly not his son. “He taught me a lot of what not to do,” Bobby explained. A negative example was the only kind of guidance Grossi, Sr. ever provided.

Grossi, Sr. can understand his son’s distance. “Family give up,” he explained, although he is grateful that his son hasn’t entirely abandoned him. The same cannot be said about his younger brother, William “Billy” Grossi. In the 1970s, the two raced motorcycles together. They were Bob Grossi and “Sugar Bear,” but no longer. Last Thanksgiving, when Grossi, Sr. reached out to wish his brother happy holidays, Billy responded with a text that held three words: “Same to you.” It’s the most the two had said to each other in a while.

“The family gives up after like six, seven, 10 years,” Grossi, Sr. said. “They don’t write no more, they don’t visit, they get remarried, a lot of times to his best friend.”

He wasn’t speaking hypothetically. In the beginning, from 1978 to 1982, during his first three and a half years in California state prisons, his family was sometimes seven hours away, making their visits infrequent. The next time Grossi, Sr. was locked up in Texas, for forgery, from 1992 to 1997, he said he didn’t even have an address for any of his relatives. No one visited and, at the start, there were no phone calls or letters.

“I don’t see many people making it. They don’t have anywhere to turn. What they know is what they know, and that’s prison life.”

The time Grossi, Sr. spent incarcerated in New York wasn’t drastically different. While in prison, both of Grossi, Sr.’s parents died. His fourth and current wife abandoned him for “crack and other men,” in his words, though, today, they are back together, living with her parents in Texas. Looking back, Grossi, Sr. wonders if this combination of tragedy and infidelity drove him back to alcohol and drugs. Laughing without much humor, he mused, “It sounds good, right?”

To cope with the loss and lack of family, Grossi, Sr. remembered, many inmates form new ties in prison, joining gangs and other criminal organizations that become their only support system.

“They try for a while, [. . .] But it’s a half-hearted try,” he said. His words hint at sadness. “I don’t see many people making it. They don’t have anywhere to turn. What they know is what they know, and that’s prison life. They got their hustle in there.”

Unlike those without a record, relationships born in prison are free of judgment, Grossi, Sr. said. They are people who understand what it is like to live life after prison and to struggle with addiction, something men like Crawford -- men who have never spent time behind bars and have never themselves been addicted to any substance -- have a harder time understanding. “They might let you come in, but it’s real uncomfortable. You can feel it, you know?” He was reflecting on his time with the Crawfords before he returned to drug use. “You can feel it in the air.”

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Grossi, Sr.’s son Bobby is the pastor of Reno’s Living Stones church for born-again Christians. Early on, Bobby revered his dad as a motocross superhero. Despite the older Grossi’s many shortcomings, he still meant the world to his son.

In those formative years, Bobby’s grandmother, Margaret “Peggy” Grossi, did her best to give her son good press. She told her grandson that his dad was away racing or visiting an out-of-state hospital to hide the fact that Grossi, Sr. was in prison. Few could blame her for the white lies. Bobby’s mother, an ex-wife Grossi, Sr. refers to only as Patty, caused Bobby just as much shame -- “the embarrass-me-in-school type of drunk” was how he described her. “My grandparents almost took me away from her because she was so out of control.”

After Grossi, Sr., Patty had a string of abusive relationships before she married again. Her new husband also had a drug problem, but unlike Grossi Sr., he was an active, albeit blunt, parent. Bobby said his step-dad never dodged Grossi, Sr.’s criminal behavior and addiction. “He used to say stuff like, ‘You don’t want to be like your real dad. You don’t want to go down this route.’ And that,” Bobby remembered, “left this huge scar on my soul.”

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When trying to pinpoint exactly when the illusions of his father began to fade, the memories of one summer are particularly vivid for Bobby. It’s the first story that comes to his mind, and it begins with a boy, a planned vacation, and a packed backpack. That summer, Grossi Sr. was out of prison and supposed to take care of his son. Bobby remembers waiting for his father at his grandmother’s home. “I fell asleep with my bags packed, kind of waiting at the window just inside the house,” Bobby said. “He never showed.”

Perhaps Bobby should have known better. At four years old, he watched his father do a line of cocaine. Curious, Bobby asked for an explanation -- what he got was a nummer. “After you do a line of coke, there’s always some left on your finger, and you should take your finger and put it in your mouth,” Bobby said. The white powder quickly turned his little mouth numb.

Today, Bobby has come to terms with the fact that when his father is using, addiction takes over. Bobby has learned not to expect a great deal. It’s up to his father to contact him; but, most times, Grossi, Sr. goes silent when he relapses. “There isn’t a ton of correspondence when he gets to that point,” Bobby said. “If he calls, he calls.”

“That point” was exactly the level Grossi, Sr. had reached after his release from prison in March 2010. But this time, given his father’s advancing age, Bobby thought the relapse seemed like a death wish.

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For many inmates entering the correctional system, both the young and the elderly, time spent behind bars is their first experience with professional health care. "Who’s a prisoner?" Dr. Manheimer asked during an interview at Le Pain Quotidien on 34th and Park in Manhattan. The hum of machines making the cafe’s organic fare was odd background music for the hour-long conversation. "It’s your poorest members of society. They generally don’t go to doctors."

Viola Riggin, director of Healthcare Services for the Kansas Department of Corrections, has noticed a similar trend. “It’s pretty rare for them to have a health care history prior to coming to us,” she said in a phone interview. Many incarcerates enter prison without any immunizations.

For elderly inmates with compromised immune systems, this environment of illness does not bode well, Manheimer explained. “These patients are very sick, or have the propensity to get very sick because they are predisposed.”

“They release you at four o’clock in the morning on Long Island City with a metro card and a couple dollars,” Manheimer explained -- enough money for one or two subway rides and a coffee at Dunkin’ Doughnuts.

Along with drug problems and mental illness, many inmates suffer from communicable diseases. As reported by to the Bureau of Justice, at 2010’s end, more than 20,000 inmates tested positive for HIV or AIDS -- 194 out of every 10,000 inmates, more than three times the HIV/AIDS rate in the general U.S. population.

At Rikers Island, comprehensive health care treatment ends with the completion of a prisoner’s sentence. “They release you at four o’clock in the morning on Long Island City with a metro card and a couple dollars,” Manheimer explained -- enough money for one or two subway rides and a coffee at Dunkin’ Doughnuts. There is no follow-up care and no supplementary medication.

In Kansas, where Riggin works, post-prison treatment programs are more forgiving. They offer a 30-day supply of medication and a 90-day health care plan supervised by the Department of Corrections. While incarcerated, inmates are also prepped for their medical responsibilities on the outside, a move Riggin believes helps to reduce recidivism. Kansas’ Keep-On-Person medication program encourages an active role in personal health care by permitting inmates who are still in the system to carry aspirin, Tylenol, antibiotics, and or hypertension medications that can be self administered. “Our education program is allowing them -- and, quite frankly, requiring them -- to keep their medication on their person, to be responsible for it,” Riggin said. It’s then up to the inmates to remember to take their pills.

While the discipline to take aspirin when needed might sound more like common sense than required medical training, this lack of basic knowledge is something Crawford has also seen. Finding a place to live and steady employment, he explained, is a big part of an addict’s recovery; but so are paying rent, buying groceries, and knowing how to balance a checkbook. “There are some people in our society who basically don’t get it, or get a very poor or very incomplete degree of life skills training in their upbringing, and they’re really at a loss,” Crawford said. Without these skills, staying clean can be impossible.

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With a stable place to stay and some money saved, looking after his health should have been Grossi, Sr.’s first and largest concern after his release from New York state prison. But his bad back, failing teeth, ailing liver, and a positive diagnosis for hepatitis C all came second to his addiction. The drugs and alcohol killed the pain. With $18,000 to spend, Grossi, Sr. could afford to forget his problems. “This is the insanity of the disease or the mind, whatever way you want to put it,” Grossi, Sr. said.

To begin his relapse, Grossi, Sr. ordered drinks at Ithaca’s Viva Taqueria.

To begin his relapse, Grossi, Sr. ordered drinks at Ithaca’s Viva Taqueria.

His post-prison life started to unravel on The Commons in Ithaca. Walking by Viva Taqueria, a Mexican restaurant and bar famous for its Macho Nachos, Grossi, Sr. decided he had the strength to order a drink and not overdo it. He had earned a margarita, he thought, so, once inside, he had the bartender mixed him “a couple.” One week later, Grossi, Sr. was back at the bar, having opened a secret account at Bank of America to pay for his regression -- money from his inheritance that Crawford didn’t know about. The ATM, conveniently, was less than a minute’s walk from the taqueria’s bar stool. This time, Grossi, Sr. had the bartender mix him doubles. After that, it was easy to rationalize a cab ride to Schenectady, N. Y., his old “stomping grounds.” Once there, cocaine was the first thing Grossi, Sr. searched for, and he knew exactly where to get it.

Schenectady’s Central Avenue is infamous for its motels, the shoddy, rundown buildings with dim lighting and shadows that hide their peeling paint. The neon out front doesn’t always illuminate, but their other roadside signage provides all the key information. These motels charge by the hour and always have vacancies. They are ideal places for a man who wants to disappear.

The last time Grossi, Sr. was in Schenectady, in 2006, he was 56 and running from parole officers and a positive drug test -- his third “dirty” in drug court. The chase ended in his arrest on a DWI, which in turn led him back to prison on an earlier attempted burglary charge. But by 2010, on the strength of his inheritance, he could afford to pay for a good time. He invited two friends to join him, a beautiful stripper and a prostitute who was dying from AIDS. “All of this involves a lot of criminal activity,” Grossi, Sr. recalled. “Prostitution, pimps, home burglaries, motel break-ins, other dealers ripping off other dealers.” Until the money was gone.

Notorious in the neighborhood, the motels on Schenectady’s Central Avenue offer the perfect opportunity for a man to disappear.

Notorious in the neighborhood, the motels on Schenectady’s Central Avenue offer the perfect opportunity for a man to disappear.

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It’s difficult for Grossi, Sr. to remember when drugs truly became an issue. The first time he tried acid was at a rock concert when he was 16. He was seeing a band like Cream, Grateful Dead or Jimi Hendrix, he said. The exact details of the escapade are fuzzy.

“Everybody was doing it,” Grossi, Sr. offered, a familiar form of reasoning. By 18, he was smoking weed regularly with Bobby’s mother. By 26, Grossi Sr. was doing cocaine, a use too frequent to be considered recreational. His racing career was quickly ending, but Grossi, Sr. had grown used to the celebrity lifestyle. He liked the drugs, sex, and parties. “I’m an adrenaline junky with nowhere to go,” he explained. “I like speed.”

By 1978, at age 28, he was caught driving the getaway car for a burglary in California. As penance, a judge sentenced him to four years in state prison, and Grossi served nearly all of his term in three different facilities: San Quentin, Salinas Valley State Prison, and the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. It was hard time, but Grossi saw it as an adventure and a learning opportunity. He got his schooling from “OTs,” or old timers. “The basic rule,” Grossi, Sr. said, “is keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open, and keep your face forward, and you’ve got to stand up.”

Even though he was housed in minimum security facilities, Grossi, Sr. did his time with “original gangsters” -- members of gangs like Hells Angels, the Bloods, and the Crips.

“My friends smuggled pot in, we were sellin’ pot, and I was a custody clerk,” he said. “We were doing gamblin’ and all that. My mom and my dad would come visit me with my girlfriend.”

This kind of corruption among inmates and prison guards was a regular occurrence, Grossi, Sr. remembered. If you had the money and the influence, the guards would look the other way. Many of the inmates had wives who would “take care of ‘em on the streets,” meeting up with prison guards to hand them an envelope filled with money. Bribe in hand, the guards would then allow an inmate to smuggle drugs or arrange a killing. This violence was simply an element of the adventure.

All in all, he found the experience was relatively easy to endure. But he was only 28.

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For elderly inmates, even the most routine prison violence can be grueling, Captain Dale Call explained over the phone. Call is the public information officer for Kansas’ El Dorado Correctional Facility where he’s dealt with his fair share of jailhouse brawls. As El Dorado’s warden’s page explains, inmates assigned to this facility are most often repeat offenders prone to violence.

“You have people that are trying to vie for territory rights, or trying to run an angle, to run scams,” Call said. “Trying to strong arm individuals, trying to bully [them] for food items, extort money from them, sexual favors.” Often, he sees elderly inmates fall victim to this “silliness.”

While the Bureau of Justice does not track violent incidents by age, a study of New Jersey elderly incarcerates cited in the 2012 Human Rights Watch report "Old Behind Bars" found that one in five inmates over 50 reported experiences of "physical victimization." This abuse can be as simple as harassment over phone time, Call explained, or as severe as assault -- a fact Grossi, Sr. knows too well after his stint in New York’s Five Points Correctional Facility.

“You’ve got to fight, you know, just to protect your property and your pride,” Grossi, Sr. said. “If you don’t, they’ll just punk you out. [. . .] Right away, when you’re challenged, whether there’s two or three of ‘em, you’ve got to get a first punch in.”

In prison, personal property isn’t the only possession that requires defense. “You really have to protect your feelings,” Grossi, Sr. explained. Behind bars, he remembered, a gesture as simple as offering a guy a candy bar was taken as a sign of weakness. “You turn real bitter and real numb,” Grossi, Sr. said. Emotionally, “You shut yourself down.” It’s a method of survival. In an environment like Five Points, rage runs rampant.

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Five Points Correctional Facility is a maximum security institution capable of housing 1,500 inmates. Like many prisons, it’s a detention center built from barbed wire and concrete. The compound stands alone in a field in Romulus -- the heart of New York’s Finger Lakes wine region -- less than five miles from Seneca Lake. But from their cells, the prisoners experience little of the wine country’s charms.

Although Grossi, Sr.’s attempted burglary conviction wasn’t for a violent crime, he was sent to Five Points by a judge who deemed him a flight risk -- a valid point, considering Grossi had fled “paper,” or parole, from Oregon to Schenectady prior to his 2006 arrest. Rapists and murderers were Grossi, Sr.’s cellmates, providing poor company for a 56-year-old man recovering from back surgery.

It was at Five Points that Grossi, Sr. had his strokes. After that, he was moved into protective custody -- a lockdown similar to time spent in “the hole”; only, this time, he was segregated for his personal safety. Still, the isolation meant no “rec” in the yard, no social interaction, and a lot of time to think.

“Once you start thinkin’ too much,” he explained, “or gettin’ paranoid feelings about what other people think about you, and you puzzle on that, that’s a terrible place to be in your head.”

When his parents died, his mother in 2006 and his father in 2009, Grossi Sr. lost it. Behind bars, he could be of no help as his parents deteriorated and his two siblings managed the logistics. Grossi couldn’t even grieve. Since crying in prison is taken as frailty, he never had time to mourn their passing. Looking back, Grossi wishes he could have done more.

“I seen my daughter -- my wife’s daughter, my step-daughter -- get murdered [. . .] I thought my family had all been killed. I thought they got buried in the prison yard.”

“Your mom and dad raised you, so, you know, they don’t go in a nursing home or nothin’. They just die at home or out huntin’ or, you know, somethin’ that means somethin’ to ‘em. They don’t,” he said, pausing for a breath. In 2009, his younger brother Billy allowed his father to be placed in Flor’s Guest Home, an assisted living facility in Santa Cruz -- essentially, a nursing home. Sighing, Grossi, Sr. finished, “You don’t put ‘em in there.”

To manage his mental breakdown, prison officials moved Grossi to the Auburn Correctional Facility. A regimen of prescription antipsychotic drugs was his only therapy -- there was no counseling.

“They put me in. . . not a straightjacket, but they stripped me naked and put me in this little room,” Grossi said. The drugs brought on nightmares in which he saw the death of his family. “I seen my daughter -- my wife’s daughter, my step-daughter -- get murdered [. . .] I thought my family had all been killed. I thought they got buried in the prison yard.”

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Grossi, Sr. isn’t the first to remark on the horrifying conditions of the mental health facilities in U.S. prisons. For Dr. Manheimer, the psychiatric centers at correctional locations like Rikers Island are medieval. “Barbaric” is how he describes the health care.

This is not an unqualified observation. Manheimer has 15 years of experience working with inmates from Rikers on Bellevue Hospital’s 19th floor, the prison ward. When patients and medical staff enter this part of the building, they are no longer in the hospital -- they enter the New York State Department of Corrections. Though Rikers is a short-stay facility, housing inmates for less than one year, the patients seen by Manheimer offer an excellent picture of the medical issues faced by incarcerates. They are, Manheimer believes, “the most vulnerable people in society.”

The issue of inmate health care goes beyond how prison affects the health of the elderly. In the end, the debate is a simpler conversation of how age affects a senior individual, explained Dr. Vinck. “We know what services are needed by the elderly population,” he said. The needs of the elderly incarcerated are no different. “If we cannot provide these services, then imprisonment is just not the way to go. You cannot have it both ways.” And yet, for inmates at Rikers, Manheimer sees no treatment.

Rather than counseling severely mentally ill inmates, the Rikers mental health program takes a chemical approach. “You have people hallucinating, urinating, smearing feces all over the place,” Manheimer said. To cope, “They just sedate the patients like crazy.”

“You have people hallucinating, urinating, smearing feces all over the place,” Manheimer said. To cope, “They just sedate the patients like crazy.”

Grossi, Sr., too, thinks these prescribed tranquilizers are dangerous. Inside prison, a medicated stupor can be lethal, particularly for elderly inmates who are already at increased risk of falling victim to violence. Knowing this, it is easier to see why, despite his prescriptions for antidepressants, Grossi refuses to take his mental health medication. “I like to be active,” he said. “I like my senses about me.”

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Do the mentally ill truly belong in prison? Dr. Manheimer doesn’t think so. As reported by the Justice Center, however, "The incidents of serious mental illness is two to four times higher among prisoners than it is among the general population." Of these inmates, 70 percent also struggle with addiction.

The numbers emphasize the severity of the problem. In 2005, Bureau of Justice statistics found that 56 percent of all state inmates and 45 percent of U.S. federal prisoners suffered from mental health issues. Depression, mania, "persistent anger," attempted suicide, delusions, hallucinations, "feelings of worthlessness," and "excessive guilt" were all listed among their symptoms.

For men like these, Manheimer believes that the U.S. prison system has become the de facto form of treatment. Other options for affordable psychological healthcare no longer exist. By Manheimer’s count, Rikers has enough room to officially incarcerate 4,000 psychiatric patients, those classified as “seriously and persistently mentally ill.” This number makes Rikers Island the largest psychiatric facility in the entire United States.

But let’s take a moment to do the math. If U.S. prisons average an approximate 50 percent rate of mental illness in inmates, and the 11 prison units at Rikers can house as many as 17,000 incarcerates, as the City of New York Department of Corrections reports, logic would suggest that at least 8,500 beds are needed for psychiatric patients. The 4,000 available units aren’t even half that amount.

The deinstitutionalization of the U.S. mental health system began in the 1960s when state-run facilities were closed in favor of proposed smaller community-run programs. This change should have been made possible by the success of the then-new antipsychotic medications. The problem, however, is that these community centers never developed, leaving U.S. prisons to pick up the slack.

In the 25 years between 1955 and 1980, the number of patients at state mental hospitals dropped nearly 28 percent, from 559,000 to 154,000. By 1994, state-run institutions housed fewer than 72,000 patients. Bear in mind, the U.S. population has grown since the 1950s. This reported 1994 nationwide count is far less than the 885,000 individuals that would have been proportional to the pre-deinstitutionalization numbers. The difference, over 800,000 unaccounted for patients, highlights one simple fact: for many, a stay in prison has become the default treatment.

When paired with President Richard Nixon’s June 1971 “war on drugs” and the accompanying “tough on crime” sentencing policies, this influx of mentally ill incarcerates helped to create a sort of perfect storm for unprecedented prison growth.

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Since the 1980s, the number of U.S. prisoners has, Human Rights Watch reports, increased 600 times. Statistics released by the Bureau of Justice that examine the total “number of adults under correctional supervision” tell a similar story. In 1980, when the Bureau of Justice first started tracking these figures, the nation’s departments of corrections oversaw fewer than two million individuals. By 2009, that number exceeded seven million.

In states like California -- states that use harsh “three strikes” sentencing regulations -- the average third-time offender enters prison at the age of 36 with a nonviolent conviction, Human Rights Watch reported in “Old Behind Bars.” By the time this inmate is released, after completing a minimum 25 year sentence, he will be 61 with a physical age of 73. By almost any standard, 73 is old.

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Much of the data and debate about aging inmates focuses on the predicaments of elderly men. The reasoning, though exclusive, is simple, Dr. Vinck explained. Statistically, there are fewer women in prison -- in 2010, the ratio of male to female inmates housed in state facilities was 13 to one, Human Rights Watch and Vinck found. For elderly inmates, the gender gap is much greater. Specifically, incarcerates over the age of 55 are 21 times more likely to be male.

But the few women who are in prison are not immune to the brutal effects of a life supervised by the Department of Corrections. The “constant tension, harassment, and boredom and bullying” Dr. Manheimer cites as the cause of accelerated aging have a profound impact on female inmates, he said. “I’ve seen women who are 35 years old -- I think they’re 65 years old,” Manheimer explained. “They have no teeth, they have no dental care. They’ve been hustling and prostitutes and smoking and drinking just to keep themselves together.”

Unfortunately, in the elderly prisoner debate, these female incarcerates’ plight is often overlooked.

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It was Grossi, Sr.’s mother-in-law, a woman he calls Susie, who offered rescue from his relapse in Ithaca and Schenectady. Over the phone, she invited him to come live with her family in Texas.

Staying with his fourth wife, who still struggles with addiction, and her family is not ideal. Even Grossi Sr. recognizes this. “When she’s here, she’s a good girl,” he explained. “When she goes back to Florida, I don’t even want to know.” It was a reference to her attraction to methamphetamine. When Grossi’s wife needs a fix, she journeys out of state. When she’s home, in Texas, their relationship is distant, at best. Grossi keeps his wife at arm’s length, refusing to become too emotionally connected. Losing her to drugs, he confessed, is painful.

But courtesy can only go so far in fighting guilt and depression. “Is my life all that good and happy now? No,” he said. “I want to see my family a lot more. I wish I could get out of here.”

Financial support comes mainly from the social security checks Grossi, Sr. receives -- funds he has earned from his years working in construction. “It’s not like they’re giving me money.”

For many younger ex-offenders, this type of manual labor offers an achievable, stable source of income. “It’s not like I got to do a lot of paperwork,” Grossi, Sr. said of his experience applying for work as a drywall finisher. “They don’t run a background check.”

Construction skills, plumbing, and electrical certification are all common occupational programs offered by parolee and ex-incarcerate outreach programs. These skills workshops, however, are geared towards men in their 30s. Elderly ex-offenders -- men whose bodies are broken by extended years of prison life -- are not likely to be able to earn a living swinging a hammer.

Today, to pass the time, Grossi, Sr. volunteers at a local senior center and resale store. At Susie's house, he helps out with the family cat shelter, rescuing kittens and burying the older cats that die. “Keeping busy helps,” he said; but that’s only part of his recovery. Off of the drugs, Grossi, Sr. tries to be a good person, his real self. “I open doors for ladies,” he said. “I say ‘thank you,’ ‘yes ma’am,’ ‘yes sir.’”

But courtesy can only go so far in fighting guilt and depression. “Is my life all that good and happy now? No,” he said. “I want to see my family a lot more. I wish I could get out of here.”

Reconnecting with his relatives has been a slow process, but it’s happening. A year and a half ago, Grossi, Sr. journeyed to California to visit his son Bobby, his brother, and his estranged daughter whom Grossi, Sr. abandoned along with his second marriage.

“It ended up bein’ -- that was the noble deed, the noble thing to do, ‘cause I was in no condition to take care of her or support a family,” he said as way of justification. As he spoke the words -- perspective offered by a drug counselor -- it’s easy to see that Grossi, Sr. recognizes the empty platitude.

When speaking of his son, Grossi, Sr. grew the most emotional. “I mean,” he said, “If somethin’ happened to him and I hadn’t reconciled with him and told him I loved him so much and I’m sorry I wasn’t there and explained things. . .” The thought dies there, unfinished.

Guilt darkens his better moments. Addiction recovery programs have taught him that this feeling fingers a dangerous trigger. Although Grossi, Sr. is clean now, his stay at Susie’s has weathered another relapse fueled by money he received from a disability settlement from his prison back injury. At the time, using seemed logical. Drugs erase the shame and the depression, if only momentarily. “It just made everything go away, and you feel all tingly and good inside,” he said. “It’s like the first time you get high is the perfect high. Most addicts and alcoholics want to find that again, so they go back and search for that euphoric place where everything is just like dreamland.”

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Beyond the ethical issues involved in keeping elderly offenders behind bars is the urgent question of overcrowding, of space.

Currently, federal prisons are operating at 39 percent above their maximum capacity, a September 2012 report by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons found. State prisons are not faring much better: at the end of 2011, statistics compiled by the Bureau of Justice showed 27 states were operating with prison populations too large for the facilities. This overcrowding can become dangerous, the 2012 Kansas Legislator Briefing Book explained. "Excessive inmate movement," difficulties in managing emergencies, complications enrolling incarcerates in rehabilitation programs, "greater reliance on segregation," and "problematic releases" are all listed as potential consequences of housing too many inmates.

Early release for elderly inmates could provide one possible solution. However, tough-on-crime politicians like Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback are not convinced. “I really don’t think you want to mix those concepts,” he said when asked if he thought age had an impact on recidivism. Offering early release to elderly inmates would give the impression that the government was becoming soft on crime, he replied, and no matter what an inmate’s age is, “You pay your debt.”

In his role as a U.S. senator from 1996 to 2011, Brownback, a Republican, championed the Second Chance Act, a piece of legislation passed in 2008 predominantly geared toward reducing recidivism by increasing community treatment programs. As of 2009, the Justice Center reports that more than 300 agencies and programs from 48 states have taken advantage of the act’s $165 million in funding.

Also included in the Second Chance Act, however, is a clause that offers potential early release for nonviolent federal inmates ages 65 and older who have served 10 years or 75 percent of their sentence, whichever number is greater. If the National Institute of Corrections’ aging formula is applied, these men would have the body of a 77 year old when released -- a telling figure. In an October 2012 report, the Center for Disease Control calculated that the average U.S. male lives to age 76. For the released federal inmates, statistically, every day they are still breathing is borrowed.

Beginning in October 2008, the Bureau of Prisons released 71 elderly offenders to house arrest in an attempt to test the cost-effectiveness of this national Second Chance Act program. Their findings were not encouraging. By September 2010, outside monitoring of the 71 aging inmates actually cost $540,631 more than the price of housing the group in federal prisons. These figures, the ACLU claims, could be significantly reduced if inmates had been freed without such extensive supervision. The Bureau of Prisons, the ACLU believes, could use compassionate release programs as a precedent.

Compassionate release was first introduced 29 years ago as part of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act. The program was designed to offer a reprieve to ailing incarcerates within the federal prison system. Under the power of the act, courts can free these offenders, but only under what Human Rights Watch cites as "‘extraordinary and compelling’ circumstances." The requirements for compassionate release are rigid, a 2010 report by the Annals of Internal Medicine explained. For inmates to be eligible, they must be so unwell that their condition prevents them from posing any further threat to society. In many cases, prisoners must be terminally ill.

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On the surface, the Bureau of Prison’s compassionate release track record seems sufficient. In fact 2011 saw 25 of that year’s 38 early release requests granted, a two-thirds success rate. Although reasonably good, this number is not the most telling figure, as Jamie Fellner and Mary Price explained in their 2012 report, "The Answer is No." Fellner works with Human Rights Watch and Price is vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Instead, their report contends, it’s important to look at the number of inmates being considered for compassionate release. In 2011, there were 38, compared to 23 such requests in 1994. And yet over these 17 years, the federal prison population has grown from 95,034 inmates to 218,170. That is a growth rate of 230 percent. Proportionally, the Bureau of Prisons should be hearing at least 53 requests each year. And so the elderly inmate population keeps growing.

Like the definition for geriatric incarcerates, compassionate release is not a program standardized across state prisons, nor is it required. As of 2010, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that only 39 states had any form of medical parole. Of these states, only 15 have programs in place to grant early release for older inmates, the Vera Institute of Justice found. In New York, where the Vera Institute of Justice is headquartered, geriatric release programs do exist; but their effectiveness has been called into question. Peter Cutler, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Corrections, told Auburn, N.Y.’s The Citizen that while 140 applications were submitted for compassionate release in 2010, only eight prisoners were actually granted parole. When asked to account for this abysmal five percent success rate, Dr. Manheimer was ready with an answer.

“Remember, these prosecuting attorneys -- these are young Harvard grads who do it for three to five years so they can get a reputation because they worked for the New York City District Attorney's Office,” Dr. Manheimer said. Convictions, not compassion, are what earn these lawyers a marketable name, leaving prosecutors little incentive to advocate on behalf of elderly inmates.

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Governor Brownback and the Kansas Department of Corrections have been working on how to address the issues surrounding an elderly prison population. At the beginning of this year, the state inaugurated its first geriatric correctional facility in Oswego, a town with a population of 1,821 and a main street with buildings that looked like they did in the 1980s, a local cabbie said. The only difference is, 30 years later, many of Oswego’s storefronts are now abandoned and boarded up. With the opening of the prison, Brownback hopes to bring much-needed jobs back to the area. On Friday, February 1, the governor brandished a pair of dramatically oversized scissors and severed the ceremonial red felt.

Governor Brownback cuts the ribbon to officially open the Kansas’ first geriatric prison.

Governor Brownback cuts the ribbon to officially open the Kansas’ first geriatric prison.

With the addition of the Oswego facility’s new 264 beds reserved for male inmates over the age of 55, securing Kansas’ 9,256 prison population is once again a possibility. At the beginning of last year, Kansas state correctional facilities were operating at 102 percent capacity. This geriatric prison also places Kansas among a select group of states. Using the most recent statistics available, data from 2008, the Vera Institute of Justice identified only six states with prisons devoted to housing elderly incarcerates. Kansas’ new Oswego facility brings this tally up to seven.

The benefits of geriatric correctional facilities are undeniable, explained Viola Riggin. At the Oswego correctional center, hallways are wide and the infirmary, dining hall, and day room are all centrally located in the same building as the dormitories. Here, inmates are all housed on the first and only floor -- no one sleeps in bunk beds. Handrails have been installed in the bathrooms where shower heads have been lowered and toilets have been raised. In the 65-seat dining hall, tables are wheelchair accessible.

These designs are not accidental, and the inmates at the Oswego facility appreciate the careful thought. “They like living here,” said Captain Call. “It’s all in one building, it’s climate controlled, they don’t have to go outside.”

Still, it’s a prison. “The word isn’t home,” Riggin emphasized. Here, life is ruled by a very structured clock. Each day begins at 3:30 a.m. when all of the inmates are woken and counted. For the census to be accurate, Call explained, the guards must see “living, breathing flesh” -- a human figure wrapped in blankets doesn’t cut it.

By 5:30 a.m., all of the men have received their medications and had breakfast. For this meal, each inmate is given only 20 minutes to eat. At 7 a.m., the dorms are opened. At 10 a.m., doctors begin seeing patients. Lunch, activities, and “rec” follow. At 3:30 p.m. the inmates are counted again. Another tally is taken at 10:30 before bedtime and the final count takes place at 1 a.m. Two and a half hours later, the cycle repeats.

The Oswego facility is the first Kansas correctional institution to offer a regular regimen of medical and mental health care designed for elderly inmates. While on-site dialysis is standard in many prisons, the mandated physical therapy is new, featuring programs like “low stress yoga,” explained Riggin. Additional psychological therapies help protect against prison’s “non-stimulating environment.” To remain mentally sharp -- a phrase Riggin prefers to “lazy brain,” a colloquial slip she used but quickly corrected -- inmates do memory exercises meant to keep them alert, such as reviewing numbers and the names of the days of the week.

Located in the same building as the dormitories, Oswego prison’s medical center offers easy-access healthcare to the inmates.

Located in the same building as the dormitories, Oswego prison’s medical center offers easy-access healthcare to the inmates.

Outside volunteer groups, including religious organizations, AA, and NA, run many of the programs within the prison -- undertakings overseen by the site’s Activities Coordinator. Outdoor “rec” time is required, although Oswego’s yard is smaller than those of most prisons. As of March, the larger proposed walking track had not been constructed.

Building and operating these specialized prisons does take money. For the Oswego facility, the investment required just over $1 million in one-time startup costs, a Kansas Department of Corrections fact sheet showed. On average, it will cost $41.69 a day to house and care for each of the 264 elderly inmates.

The numbers are impressive -- $41.69 a day, or an annual $15,216, to house an elderly inmate is a fraction of the ACLU’s estimated $68,270 yearly cost. This $15,216 per year is even less than half of the $34,000 price tag the ACLU put on younger incarcerates. Shocking? Absolutely, although not entirely off trend, as last year’s January report by the Vera Institute of Justice demonstrated using 2010 statistics. Nationally, state prisons averaged roughly $31,000 per inmate per year, the study showed. Single Kansas out, however, and the average annual spending dropped to an estimated $18,000 per inmate.

Is Kansas onto something? Maybe, although the Vera Institute is hesitant to give fiscal planning complete credit for the reduced costs. Overcrowding, the institute suggests, can play a factor in lower spending. The numbers, however, offer a different picture. Compare the Vera Institute’s list of the annual costs with overcrowding records from the Bureau of Justice from 2010 to 2006: only 12 of the states that paid less than the national average per year per prisoner also averaged a five-year inmate population that exceeded capacity. That means contrary to the Vera Institute’s reasoning, California, North Dakota, and New Jersey are each among the top-ten spenders and top-ten states with overpopulated prisons.

The Oswego facility has room to house only one third of Kansas’ 844 inmates in the 55 and older age group, one quarter of whom are serving life sentences. It would take three more facilities like Oswego to handle the entire population of prison elders, and budget cuts suggest these are not in the offing. Already, reductions in the Kansas correctional budget have led to fewer inmate programs and post-release services, financial analyst Michael Wales found in a 2012 legislative report. Without this funding, Wales fears an increase in recidivism.

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Captain Call is hesitant to say that age has anything to do with recidivism. But at a certain point, he explained, an inmate does change. “A lot of times, when people come into segregation, you have someone that’s 21 [or] 22 years old and they’re just out of control,” he said. But, with age, he said, comes maturity.

In Call’s opinion, there is no recipe for this enlightenment. “You can send them to all kinds of programs, give them all kinds of training and stuff like that,” he said. “But sometimes it just takes them one day just to say, you know what, I don’t want to do this no more.”

Visitors to the Oswego geriatric correctional facility wait for the opening ceremonies.

Visitors to the Oswego geriatric correctional facility wait for the opening ceremonies.

Grossi Sr. seems to share the captain’s view. “Why use? Why pick up?” he asked, rhetorically. “I know where it gets me, and I don’t want to be like that. I’m growing up. Sixty-two years old, and I’m finally going to reach adulthood.”

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When asked if he worries about his father, Bobby answers with a simple “yes.” But does he worry enough to send his dad money? “No, probably not,” he said. “For his own good, I wouldn’t do that.” Past experience has shown Bobby that his father spends all the money he saves on drugs, and Bobby doesn’t see why this time would be any different. And another bender, Bobby fears, would leave his dad dead in a crack house.

“Sometimes it just takes them one day just to say, you know what, I don’t want to do this no more.”

“To tell you I don’t feel like usin’ anymore would be a lie,” his father said. Whenever the cravings surface and he begins to dream of using, Grossi, Sr. tries to think about where the drugs will take him. “I don’t want my family to remember me as somebody who died in prison,” he explained, “or of AIDS, or an overdose,” all of which are real concerns. “It’s a lie to think I could drink or have one, or smoke pot, or take some pills,” Grossi said. “That’s a complete lie.”

For the time being, he is handling his depression without a buffer. “It’s not bein’ able to cope with all this traffic -- too many people talkin’, bein’ in the mall and gettin’ overwhelmed,” Grossi, Sr. explained, “Gettin’ [. . .] claustrophobic in your mind, you know? I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t take it.”

“My mind thinks -- the addict’s mind -- thinks that, oh, well, I can just do one, or I can just have one beer, I can just, you know, take one hit on a crack pipe,” he said. Some days, returning to prison sounds easier, but Grossi knows it’s a comfortable “coward’s way out.” Still, he considers it. “A lot of older people would rather finish their life out in prison than bein’ out here on the streets,” he said.

“Boy,” he finishes, “What’s the right answer to give you?”

Headline photo courtesy of Michael Coghlan.

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute