[Ppnews] For an Aging Angola Inmate, Death Is the Only Release

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri May 8 16:52:13 EDT 2009

Free From Prison At Last: For an Aging Angola Inmate, Death Is the Only Release


May 8, 2009

  As I 
a couple of weeks ago, the growth in harsh 
sentencing and parole restrictions are filling 
the nation’s prisons with old and infirm 
prisoners. While these prisoners couldn’t do much 
damage if they  tried, they are rarely shown any 
mercy, and there is little interest in 
alternatives such as letting them out for 
monitored house arrest as they near death, so 
that they can spend their final moments in the “free world.”

The Shreveport Times earlier this year 
one such prisoner, Douglas Dennis, 73, a severely 
ill, wheelchair bound inmate at the Lousiana 
State Penitentiary at Angola. Dennis had been 
convicted of killing an accountant in the 
Shreveport city jail in 1957 and killing another 
inmate at Angola in the 1960s, and was serving 
two life sentences. In January, he appeared 
before the parole board, asking for clemency on 
the basis of  his recent good record and good 
works at Angola, and his age and health problems, 
saying he wanted to be set free before he died. 
The request–which his lawyer called his “last 
chance,” since it only happens once every five 
years–was unanimously rejected by the board. As 
the paper reported, his case was far from unusual:

Louisiana’s prison system holds 5,023 adult 
offenders over age 50 ­ more than three times the 
number in 1997, when about 1,500 inmates over age 
50 were in the system. Age 50 is considered 
geriatric by corrections standards. Hard lives of 
drug abuse and poor health can make a 50-year-old 
inmate appear 10 or 20 years older, experts say

Nationally, fewer than 5 percent of older inmates 
who are released commit new crimes. In Louisiana, 
of all inmates who were released in 2003 and who 
later returned to prison, only 1.3 percent were 
age 50 or older. For inmates age 55 or older, 
that figure drops to 0.6 percent, according to 
Louisiana Department of Corrections data as of 
June 30, 2008. By comparison, the highest 
recidivism rate for inmates released in 2003 was 
9.9 percent for two age groups ­ 21-24 and 25-29.

At Angola, some 85 to 90 percent of those 
imprisoned die within its walls. Living death is 
such a matter of fact within Angola that the 
place has a hospice to ease the final passage, an 
elaborate funeral setup, and a large graveyard. 
Angola’s notorious warden, Burl Cain, has made it 
clear that he believes, quite literally, that the 
only way out of the place should be through the 
redempton found in embracing Christ; he has made 
it his mission to bring salvation to prisoners 
facing death by natural causes, as well as by 
lethal injection in Angola’s death house.  As a 
result of his ministry, Cain has become the 
subject of 
profiles in evangelical publications, and Angola 
has become a popular stop for Christian 
fundamentalist groups, who are welcomed on tours.

This week, the Shreveport Times 
the death of Dennis, apparently from a heart 
attack, in Angola’s hospital. The paper reports 
that state will conduct an autopsy, then hs body 
will be released to a funeral home and cremated. 
After that Dennis’s friend, author Abigail 
Pagett, will send him off in a manner not exactly 
dictated in Christian practice.

Padgett will place the ashes in a Viking boat 
that Dennis crafted in prison and set it on fire 
in the ocean. She said she and Dennis had planned 
this kind of funeral during Padgett’s visits to the prison.

At his January hearing before the parole board, 
testifying in favor of Dennis included several 
corrections officers, a former warden, the former 
FBI agent who tracked Dennis after he escaped in 
1979 (and lived a crime-free life in California 
for six years before being caught), and “the 
daughters of Elayn Hunt, late head of the 
corrections department, who said their mother’s 
dying wish had been that Dennis, who had served 
as her inmate chauffeur, be released.”

But the family of Dennis’s Shreveport victim told 
the Times that they strenuously opposed his 
release. And a reader commenting on his death in 
prison summed up what may be the dominant public 
opinion on the subject: “Life should mean life. 
So many others deserve to have life in prison for 
taking someone else’s life and are still out 
today. I don’t care if you are sorry and old and 
sick now. If you make mistakes when you are 
young, they tend to follow you until you are gone.”

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