William Heirens had bad timing. Had he lived until October, he would have become the longest-serving prisoner in American history, beating the 66-year record of Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby, who was locked up in Michigan City, Ind., from 1908 to 1974. If you have to spend two-thirds of a century in prison, you should at least get a world record out of it.
Heirens, 83, was allegedly the “Lipstick Killer,” who killed three North Side women in the mid-1940s, and wrote “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more,” in lipstick on the wall of one victim's apartment.
Always insisting he was innocent, Heirens became a model prisoner. He was the first Illinois inmate to earn a college degree. Despite that, he was denied parole more than two dozen times. By the end of his life, he suffered from diabetes and got around in a wheelchair.
This raises a question. Now that we’ve replaced the death penalty with life in prison without parole, and now that inmates are living longer and longer, thanks to free health care from the Department of Corrections: should we consider a retirement age for prisoners? Some say, except for sex offenders, most criminals lose the impulses that got them locked up in their 30s or 40s.
“They just burn out,” a cop once told me.
As Amy Ziettlow wrote in The Atlantic:
Last month, Human Rights Watch released staggering figures on the human and financial costs of the growth of aging persons behind bars in America. According to their report, from 2007 to 2010 the number of prisoners over age 65 increased by 63 percent, even as the total number of inmates grew by less than one percent. Cash-strapped states are seeing health care costs for their aging, imprisoned population skyrocket.
The Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper documented that caring for aging inmates costs $80,000 annually, a cost borne fully by the state since inmates do not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. Last summer, Governor Bobby Jindal signed House Bill 138 (PDF), making parole possible for non-violent prisoners who are age 60 and older, who have not been convicted of a sexual crime, and who have served a minimum of 10 years.
That’s a law Gov. Pat Quinn should consider, too. Even if Heirens had been released 20 years ago, he would not have killed more, no matter what he wrote in lipstick when he was 18.
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