Elderly Convicts Pose Special Challenges
By Alexi Cohan
A prison guard’s alleged assault on an 86-year-old inmate at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley is casting a light on the dangers and challenges of managing the state’s growing population of elderly -- and sometimes violent -- convicts.
Prison guard Joseph Sampson, 35, of Westminster is charged with assault and battery with serious bodily harm on a person over the age of 60, after allegedly administering three punches on 86-year-old convict Paul Smith. Sampson was arraigned Dec. 21 in Clinton District Court, posted $500 cash bail and has been placed on paid administrative leave. Authorities have said only that there was an altercation between the pair.
Citing confidentiality laws, the Department of Correction refused to say what crimes Smith was convicted of, or what sentence he is serving.
As of Jan. 1 of this year, a total of 931 inmates are 60 or older in Massachusetts state prisons, according to the Department of Correction.
“We know the prison population has changed dramatically. It’s gotten older now,” said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. “In the prison system, people with elderly issues often have mental health issues that make it very difficult for the staff to deal with.”
Hodgson said older inmates have the potential to “pressure” guards to get things like food or special privileges, so officers should “pay close attention” to that.
Elderly inmates are kept in general population and treated the same as other inmates but are segregated in medical units if they have special mental or physical health issues, Hodgson said.
But Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said many correctional officers are not equipped to handle the mental and physical health issues that elderly inmates pose. She said this leads to abuse and neglect among elderly prisoners.
“I think that officers often lack training and lack the experience to deal with that population, and that can lead to a lot of problems,” said Matos, who added that inmates, due to the stresses of prison life, tend to age more quickly than the regular population.
Matos said elderly inmates -- despite histories of violent crime -- are a low-risk population who are “fairly vulnerable to being assaulted by other prisoners and staff.” Overall, she said, Souza-Baranowski has a disturbing record of guard violence against prisoners of all ages -- with her group receiving 163 complaints from inmates in the last two years.
A DOC spokesman refused to discuss the circumstances surrounding the alleged assault on the elderly prisoner, issuing the department’s guidelines on the use of force instead.
“The safety of inmates and correctional officers is a top priority for the Department of Correction, which is why we use an objective point-based classification system to standardize the evaluation and custody assignment of an inmate based on objectively defined criteria.” said Department of Corrections spokesman Jason Dobson.
Dobson said classification involves evaluating age as well as the severity of an inmate’s conviction offenses, escape history and disciplinary reports.