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Elderly inmates are the fastest growing and most expensive sector of the country's prison population. The number of older inmates more than doubled between 1981 and 1990. Between 1988 and 1993, it rose 69 percent.Clyde Mathews slumps on his bed at Ohio's Orient Correctional Institute, and opens his Bible to the torments of Job.

Four years ago, the one-time used-car salesman would have flattened the narrow metal cot under his 300-pound heft. These days he barely dents the thin mattress swathed in a stained prison blanket. He's lost more than 100 pounds and he hasn't even hit the low end of a five-to-25-year sentence.There's a good chance he'll succumb to cancer before the end of next year. "My greatest fear," says 65-year-old Mathews, "is that I'll die in prison."

He was convicted of odometer fraud in September 1990. Since then, it has cost the state of Ohio hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep Mathews alive. He takes four kinds of medication for his arthritis, has had 15 megadoses of radiation, several courses of chemotherapy and two major surgeries to remove cancerous tumors from his neck and chest. He also has diabetes, congestive heart failure, hypertension, degenerative disc disease and gout.

He is contrite, remorseful and exhausted. "I have no fire, no fight, no nothing left," he says.

"The case of Clyde Mathews may seem like a fluke, something out of the theater of the bizarre," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. "But he is not uncommon among older prisoners. In reality, this case is identical to hundreds of cases across the country. We keep finding people who've fallen between the cracks."

The exact number of elderly inmates is the subject of wide debate. Estimates range from 2 percent up to 6 percent of the total inmate population of almost 1 million nationwide. The American Correctional Association reports that there are more than 25,000 men and women 55 and older in the country's prisons.

Undisputed is the fact that elderly inmates are the fastest growing and most expensive sector of the country's prison population. The number of older inmates more than doubled between 1981 and 1990. Between 1988 and 1993, it rose 69 percent.

With an annual maintenance cost of about $75,000 per prisoner, elderly inmates already threaten to overwhelm state and federal corrections' budgets. (The average cost of keeping younger, healthy prisoners is $25,000 a year.)

The real crunch is yet to come.

Mandatory minimum sentences, laws allowing wider use of life sentences without parole and longer sentences for habitual offenders (three-strikes-and-you're-out laws) guarantee a further explosion in the elderly inmate population. Some experts predict there could be as many as 125,000 older prisoners by the year 2000 - enough, says Turley, to fill 250 prisons.

But there won't be room.

Prisons across the country already are struggling with a deluge of new inmates convicted under tougher laws that carry longer, mandatory sentences.

Chronic overcrowding has led to court orders in 42 states that sometimes force the periodic early release of inmates. Most often, prisons institute a categorical release, freeing inmates with the shortest sentences.

Typically they are young inmates with juvenile records of violent crime who have plea bar-gained a shorter sentence on a felony offense. Statistically, they are the inmates most likely to commit another crime.

Meanwhile, low-risk elderly inmates are kept behind bars, often lost in the administrative shuffle, says Turley. They tend to be invisible, prompted by fear, disability or dementia to stay out of the way.

Many are too afraid or confused to apply for parole, rarely have visitors and go for decades without being written up for disciplinary violations. They often stay well beyond the national average time served for their sentences.

Like a growing number of criminal justice experts, he argues that early release of low-risk elderly prisoners should be considered as a way to relieve overcrowding, cut corrections costs and diminish recidivism. To that end, he founded the Project for Older Prisoners (POPS), now based at George Washington University law school.

The project, which seeks to locate and evaluate the recidivism risk of elderly inmates, has helped free more than two dozen older prisoners in the past five years. Turley's criteria for early release is strict, and includes consultation with victims.

So far, none of the prisoners released through the project's advocacy have committed new crimes. Some went directly to nursing homes; others have since died.

"If, under new laws, a cell becomes a resource that can't be used again, then we have to make space decisions based on crime prevention and reduction of victimization," says Tim Flanagan, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston University in Houston. "Keeping a 75-year-old lame inmate in that precious space instead of a 25-year-old violent offender doesn't make sense."

No one suggests that age should be the sole consideration in early release programs for older prisoners. And those who advocate early release programs stress that there is no way to guarantee that elderly inmates will never again break the law.

One expert argues that age is not a fail-safe inhibitor of crime and cites the recent case of a 90-year-old man arrested for the murder of his long-time business partner. He had no criminal record.

Elderly inmates generally fall into three categories: Those serving long sentences for serious crimes, career criminals who have been in out and of prison most of their lives, and those who commit their crimes after the age of 50 and are sentenced to prison for the first time.

All inmates tend to age prematurely, adding about 10 years to their physical age once they are behind bars. As a result, prisons must contend with more and more elderly inmates too frail to use a top bunk and too tired to climb the stairs. They get trampled in the corridors and robbed as they leave the commissary. Some can't hear well, some have Alzheimer's disease.

"A lot of them can no longer lift a finger, much less make a fist," says professor Joann Morton, whose specialty at the University of South Carolina's College of Criminal Justice is elderly inmates.

Some states already have had to spend millions to build special geriatric units or install expensive medical equipment, such as dialysis machines, for ailing inmates.

Under normal circumstances, many of the older inmates' needs would be covered by an array of entitlements - Medicaid, Social Security, veteran's benefits, disability. But as convicts they can't collect any benefits.

The total number of older inmates who would qualify for early release is relatively small. But Turley points out that in New York, for instance, a POPS review of the prison population reflects that the number of older prisoners who appear eligible for parole is roughly the same as the number of new inmates entering prison under the state's new three-strikes law.

"If POPS can assist in the release of 500 prisoners in one state," says Turley, "we have effectively created a new prison for young, high-risk prisoners. And the bargain basement price for a prison of that size is about $60 million."

But the elderly con's problems don't necessarily end with parole. Most re-entry programs inside and outside of prison are designed to help younger inmates adjust to freedom. Those programs are rarely tied to social services agencies that focus on aging.

As a result, elderly ex-cons can feel more lost and threatened outside prison than inside. Some are so afraid to leave, they don't apply for parole hearings. Some refuse to go once they've served their maximum sentences.

"In many cases they've outlived their families or are alienated from everyone they know," says Morton. "Sometimes they can barely walk, much less finesse the overburdened network of aging agencies. They just end up staying in prison because they have nowhere else to go."

Most often, however, elderly inmates are more afraid of dying inside than feeling lost and alone outside. "They can't live with the thought that they will be buried in a convict grave," says Turley, citing the suicides of three POPS inmates who gave up hope of early release.

"Why don't they just let us go home to pass away?" demands Ahmad Jabbar, 52, leading a recent meeting of a Gray Panthers chapter at Graterford Prison in Pennslyvania. He and his graying colleagues talk a lot about death. "They've gotten the butter from the duck," says Jabbar. "They've gotten all a man's got to give. Let him die free."

Some 400 miles to the west, Mathews commiserates. He was supposed to get five years suspended sentence; but the judge changed his mind when Mathews was 10 days late paying his $100,000 fine. He got the max-i-mum.

The average time served for the crime is three to four months. Mathews is into his fifth year behind bars. His next chance for parole is eight months away.

"I see men die here periodically," he says. "They just fall on the floor and die. Sometimes I think I'll go crazy out of fear for meeting the same end."