Now 94 and Harmless, Why Is He Still in Jail?

At 94, John Rodgriguez is California's oldest "lifer." But he didn't get a life sentence. He got a sentence of 16 to life. He's served the 16 plus another ten years for second degree murder of his wife 25 years ago.

He's in a wheelchair, his only prison violations were misuse of the telephone and the last time that happened was in 1992.

He participates in AA, a family has offered to take him in if released, and yet he stays in prison, an effective "lifer." He was a war hero, earning a bronze star in WWII.

Every time the Parole Board has recommended him for parole, the decision has been reversed by the Governor. Last year the reversal was by Gov. Schwarzenegger.


Don Specter, whose nonprofit Prison Law Office offers free legal services to California prisoners, said the Rodriguez case "shows how irrational the parole process is."

"The law says you should pay a price for this kind of crime, but not your whole life," he said. "The question becomes, what does the state gain by keeping this man in prison?"

Rodriguez uses a walker and is hard of hearing. He has arthritis and is often forgetful. He's taken some hard falls over the years, breaking his arms and severely bruising himself. He's lived in the prison hospital for two years, sleeping in a dormitory setting rather than a cell.

The geriatric prison population in California and elsewhere is only going to increase in future years.

One recent projection is that by 2030, California will have 33,000 geriatric prisoners, compared with about 9,500 now. The increases are attributable to longer sentences, mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and tighter parole policies.

According to one study, the average cost of housing a geriatric prisoner — defined as 55 or older — is about $70,000, two to three times the cost for a younger inmate. The bill climbs even higher for those with serious physical and mental disabilities.

Rep. Maxine Waters "has taken an interest" in Rodgriguez's case because he's a veteran.

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    Sqeaky does has a point (5.00 / 1) (#18)
    by westhighlandblue on Wed Apr 11, 2007 at 06:32:19 AM EST
    While in this particular case, Mr. Rodgriguez should surely be allowed to leave prison and return to his family, it does not take much imagination to envision a time in which elderly prisoners -- without family or the means for self support -- are dumped onto the streets simply because it is cost effective.  Mr. Rodriguez and imprisoned men and women like him made a terrible mistake by treating the life of another human being without due regard.  We make the same mistake when we incarcerate men and women past the point of reasonable punishment and release them to the streets without a network of support.

    Huh? (none / 0) (#1)
    by HeadScratcher on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 11:51:31 AM EST
    "The law says you should pay a price for this kind of crime, but not your whole life," he said.

    Then what's with the 16 to LIFE sentence?

    Is his victim alive again?

    Having said all this, let the man go. It serves absolutely no purpose other than to punish the man for murdering his wife.

    It brings up the question (none / 0) (#2)
    by Alien Abductee on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 01:16:30 PM EST
    of what the purpose of incarceration is. There are three main purposes I see:

    1. punishment, and expression of moral disapproval by society
    2. protection of society from the criminal
    3. rehabilitation to produce a more functional member of society

    Conservatives tend to focus on 1) and 2) and dismiss 3); liberals tend to accept all three but focus most on 2) and 3).

    Obviously in this case 2) and 3) are out of the picture, which leaves us with only 1). So I'd say this 94-year-old is still in prison solely because conservatives are currently running the machinery of government.

    Sleeps in a dorm and not a cell. Makes me think.. (none / 0) (#3)
    by jerry on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 01:55:50 PM EST
    I have not been able to save anything like what I think is necessary for my retirement.

    Assuming I ever get to retire, I have been wondering how I will provide for myself.

    I am curious what sort of non-violent crime can get me life....  I am thinking potentially of flag-burning, or attending anti-war rallies.  Do you think that would do it, or do I have to go all the way and download some virtual that is, not real, child ....?

    Any suggestions?

    Providing meth to a minor will get you 99 years (none / 0) (#5)
    by JSN on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 02:17:59 PM EST
    in Iowa.

    I say let him go (none / 0) (#4)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 02:07:30 PM EST
    unless the family of his victim are strongly opposed to it.

    I don't understand (5.00 / 2) (#7)
    by HK on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 03:00:00 PM EST
    this idea of taking into consideration the feelings of the victim's family.  Given that the feelings of victims' families vary enormously, how does imposing their will create a fair justice system?  Surely it is actually contrary to the interests of true justice to let the wishes of individuals carry such weight?  A justice system is supposed to serve society as a whole, not the few who have had the misfortune to be directly affected by crime.

    As far as this case goes, it is an inappropriate use of public funds to keep such an elderly man incarcerated.  Governor Schwarzenegger clearly isn't looking very hard for solutions to the chronic jail overcrowding currently besetting California.


    Good question HK (none / 0) (#9)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 03:46:26 PM EST
    I don't have a good answer.

    Here's a guy who, after a life of crime, stabbed his wife 26 times until she died.

    His punishment for murdering her was 16 years to life.

    He happens to be living an unusually long life, ironically, considering that he shortened his own wife's life by, I don't know, half? Her family, children, whomever, have been without her for the same 26 years.

    Anyway, I'm rambling. His sentence was variable.

    What are the criteria used, or should be used, to define the end of this type of variable sentence?

    It would seem to me that the surviving family of the murdered woman should/would be part of that criteria, although I've never plumbed the depths of this issue before so I'm not certain.


    The Terminator is a coward (none / 0) (#6)
    by 1980Ford on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 02:59:57 PM EST
    That's all there is too it. The man served the minumum statutory requirement plus 10 years but the Terminator is terrified of appearing "soft on crime."

    Jack Kervorkian is still in jail. (none / 0) (#8)
    by dkmich on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 03:23:18 PM EST
    In his prior requests for parole, Kervorkian's attorneys and doctors had stated that he would probably not survive another year if kept in prison because his health has deteriorated so rapidly. He has become increasingly frail and suffers from seriously high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, temporal arthritis, active Hepatitis C which is violently attacking his liver, the attorney says. Kevorkian contracted the Hepatitis C during Vietnam in the service of his country testing soldiers' blood transfusions.

    Are you sure it is parole because it sound more (none / 0) (#10)
    by JSN on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 03:49:25 PM EST
    like a case where the parole board has recommended clemency and the Governor has turned it down.

    he is a murderer (none / 0) (#11)
    by cpinva on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 04:44:53 PM EST
    and isn't this exactly what those who oppose the use of capital punishment are looking for: life without the possibility of parole?

    granted, that wasn't his sentence, exactly, but that's how it's working out. so, if this bothers you, then you need to re-think your opposition to the death penalty, and calls for it to be replaced by LWOP, because this is exactly what you're going to end up with.

    You are right (none / 0) (#12)
    by HK on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 05:21:14 PM EST
    to acknowledge that LWOP was not the sentence here.  I think that to give someone an indeterminate sentence, as this guy appears to have been, is actually more cruel.

    But since you raise the issue of LWOP as an alternative to the death penalty, I feel I should point out that I (and, I imagine, many others who oppose capital punishment) only refer to LWOP as an alternative because it is a comparable punishment in that the offender is permanently removed from society.  I personally feel that LWOP should be used extremely sparingly, as it is in the UK, where, (according to the last set of figures I saw) less than 100 inmates are serving sentences with no release date.  I feel it is heavy-handed and unhelpful to label someone at, say, 18 years old as being permanently irredeemable.  Plus, as you say, we would then end up supporting and housing a large elderly prison population.


    Cruel (none / 0) (#14)
    by squeaky on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 06:05:51 PM EST
    At this point I think it is more cruel to release the guy. Send him on the street with bus money?  At that age? What is he going to do if he were released?

    Read the link, squeaky (none / 0) (#15)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 06:36:51 PM EST
    Got it (none / 0) (#16)
    by squeaky on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 07:03:58 PM EST
    Thanks SUO, it does help to read first before commenting. I guess that I still wonder what will happen to him if he was released to the family and he needed 24/7 care. It is a huge job taking care of someone in their final years, not something like taking in a kid.

    It was on my mind because a close friend hass her 96 year old mother at home. It is a huge job. Nursing care and special equipment is required. My friend is in London so the NIH picks up the tab for much.  She cannot be left alone and is wait listed for a nursing home.  A lot of love needs to be there to properly take care of someone in those August years.


    actually (none / 0) (#20)
    by cpinva on Wed Apr 11, 2007 at 09:41:10 AM EST
    the death sentence is used extremely sparingly, as a % of both the population as a whole, and as a % of those incarcerated, in the US. bear in mind, the population of the UK is less than half that of the US.

    as well, most murders are not committed by 18 year-olds, they are committed by those in their mid-20's and 30's, so we aren't talking children here. i'll grant you that most are probably not premeditated, but the person is just as dead.

    then, there are the pedophiles, who we all pretty much agree are just heinous, period.

    all of which leads back to the question: what do we, as a society, consider such a horrendous act, that life in prison is a fair sentence?

    i don't know the answer.


    Point taken (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by HK on Wed Apr 11, 2007 at 01:26:00 PM EST
    about the UK having a smaller population than the US - so let's compare some statistics.  The UK actually has a population of about a third that of the US.  You state that the death penalty in the US is used even more sparingly than LWOP; since I can't find the statistics for the number serving LWOP in the US, we can use the number on death row as a yard stick.  The number of those on death row in the US is approximately 3,350; those serving a whole life sentence in the UK number only about 100 (I think it is less than this, but am rounding up). The population in the US is three times that of the population in the UK, but the number of those on death row is more than 33 times the number serving LWOP in the UK.  Therefore, the number of inmates serving LWOP in the US must be vastly more than three times the number of imates serving LWOP in the UK.

    As far as prison populations as a whole go, it may surprise you to know that despite the UK having one of the highest rates of incarceration in Western Europe (in 2005 the figures state that 139 people per 100,000 were incarcerated) the number of people doing time is still only about a fifth of that in the US, which stood at 714 people per 100,000 in 2005. You can find the statistics here.

    most murders are not committed by 18 year-olds, they are committed by those in their mid-20's and 30's

    I think you are probably right about this, but I can't find any information about age of offenders at the time of the crime - maybe you could link to the source of your information as I would be interested for future reference.

    I was not suggesting that all those on death row or serving LWOP were sentenced at 18, but rather was objecting to the fact that it was possible for an offender to be sentenced to either death or LWOP a very young age despite the possibility that they may change considerably in the coming years.

    As far as your question (what do we, as a society, consider such a horrendous act, that life in prison is a fair sentence?) goes, my answer would be that all cases should be dealt with individually and that it is not just the act, but circumstances surrounding it and the history, nature, intelligence and mental health of the perpetrator that must be considered.  And, in some cases, age is relevant.


    What's it worth to you? (none / 0) (#13)
    by Joe Bob on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 05:48:05 PM EST
    the average cost of housing a geriatric prisoner -- defined as 55 or older -- is about $70,000

    As someone else mentioned, the State of California is currently paying $70,000/year to lock up someone who is no threat to anyone. At this point he's just in prison to satisfy society's desire for retribution.

    Whenever I see cases like this I always like to ask, is there anything you would rather use that $70,000 for? Pay a teacher's salary for a year? Send a kid through college? Provide health insurance for 10 families? Even reduce your taxes? Or, given the whole world of choices, would you still rather use that money to keep a 94-year-old in prison one more year?

    'Lock em up and forget about it' is a morally satisfying stance for a great many people take. If they were to acknowledge the tradeoffs involved, this country could have a slightly more nuanced conversation about who to lock up and for how long.  

    The prisoners who require 24 x 7 care are much (none / 0) (#19)
    by JSN on Wed Apr 11, 2007 at 08:50:35 AM EST
    older than 55 or are mentally ill. There are far more mentally ill prisoners than there are geriatric prisoners. The general health of Iowa prisoners is good so most the Iowa geriatric prisoners are 80 and older. Because there are so few of them the annual cost per prisoner is much more than $70,000.

    Life without parole (none / 0) (#17)
    by diogenes on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 11:09:35 PM EST
    Someone with a prior criminal record who stabbed his wife 26 times (not a single "crime of passion" stab), according to a prior poster.  This is exactly the sort of person for whom life without parole was designed.  
    These "average costs" of 70,000 are meaningless.  What is the marginal cost of having him in the prison hospital versus the cost of housing him in a nursing home on the outside (which is where he'll be very soon).
    Letting "sick" old prisoners go will invite yet another epidemic of malingering a la Auguste Pinochet acting too sick to be tried or sentenced.
    Hard cases make bad law.

    stabbing someone (none / 0) (#21)
    by Jen M on Wed Apr 11, 2007 at 11:18:51 AM EST
    26 times sounds like a pretty passionate act to me. Rage, to be specific. Cool and calculated would be one lethal cut.