OAKLAND -- Frankie Williams shot Eli Thornton on May 18, 1979, outside the Oakland blues club Thornton ran -- Eli's Mile High Club.
Thornton died from his wounds, and Williams, 43, a mother of seven, was sentenced to 25 years to life. For years, the state refused her parole despite breast cancer and her advanced age, making it seem that she would never leave prison.
"I used to think I was the oldest woman in prison," she said.
She was 74 the day she walked out of the Central California Women's Facility Prison in Chowchilla. On Monday, her three-year parole ends, and Williams, now 77, will find out if the state will extend her supervision or release her once and for all.
"I think they'll say OK," she said, sitting in the living room of her daughter's bungalow in Oakland, dressed in a black suit with fuchsia trim.
"I'm looking forward to it."
She is one of the rare ex-felons with a safety net provided by family. She shook her head at the thought of how she would survive if she were on her own.
In fact, most aging ex-felons will be on their own, a consideration few politicians appear to have planned for in the 1980s when they endorsed "tough on crime" policies that have created the largest prison population in the world. Now those felons are aging, bringing with them a tsunami of potentially destitute senior citizens sicker and needier than others in their age group.
Between 1995 and 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners age 55 or older nearly quadrupled nationwide, an escalation of 282 percent compared to a 42 percent increase in the number of all prisoners, according to a 2010 Human Rights Watch analysis of Bureau of Justice data.
There are 26,200 prisoners above the age of 65. Between 2001 and 2007, 8,486 inmates 55 years or older died behind bars.
50 IS OLD
In California, the average "Three Strikes" offender entered prison at age 36, with a minimum of 25 years to serve before the possibility of release, Human Rights Watch reported in 2010.
Once released, they confront many of the same problems their peers face -- a lack of savings and a shrinking safety net. Only the pressure is "exacerbated by incarceration to the extreme," said Michela Bowman of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
In prison, 50 is considered old, and although the ex-felons may be looking forward to working, they lack the experience and credentials they need to find jobs in an already tight labor market, Bowman said.
"That's just absent for people who go in in¿ their 20s and come out in their 60s," Bowman said. "This is a huge issue. It's not something that's going away."
Plus they carry the stigma of felony convictions.
Many nursing homes do not want to accept ex-felons, particularly if they were sex offenders, and those that may be willing to do so may not have beds available when an individual who needs such care is released from prison, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
"Their prospects are not very strong," Sentencing Project Executive Director Marc Mauer said. "The state is going to help pay for them one way or another. Prison is probably the more expensive way than release."
To reduce the costs of caring for aging inmates, legislators and policymakers have been increasingly willing to consider early release for older prisoners who are seen as posing a relatively low risk to public safety, according to the Vera Institute of Justice think tank. The conversation, however, has not begun about what to do with them once they are released, said advocates like Bowman, Mauer and Melissa Neal, a senior researcher with the Justice Policy Institute.
In 2012, 650,000 ex-felons were released across the United States. That translates to more than 12,000 each week who will have little financially to show for their work inside prison.
Society "can't handle the number of people coming out," Neal said.
Hit by budget cuts and lawsuits, even corrections officials recognize current policies are untenable and are looking for options.
In some states, inmates have access to work programs, some administered by private companies, which must pay prevailing wages and teach them critical work skills. Social Security payroll taxes are deducted, giving inmates a potential cushion for the future.
After years of working as a hotel maid and blues singer and then as a cook and upholsterer in prison, Williams has settled into retirement the past three years. She sings gospel with a women's group called Sisters on Fire for Christ and is one the few long-term inmates who worked enough years before going to prison to qualify for Social Security.
The monthly stipend of about $800 would not be enough to survive if she didn't live with her daughter.
"Eight hundred dollars -- that's not very much, but it's just me," Williams said.
In prison, Williams worked in the kitchen and upholstered furniture, a skill she learned there. She was paid 10 cents an hour, or about $75 a month.
Other inmates find that prisons and jails can take up to 80 percent of the wages earned behind bars to pay for their room and board, as well as court costs, child support or victim restitution.
"They lose on two counts," said Web Phillips, senior legislative representative for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
The result, he said, is that people who have spent many years in prison end up with either no Social Security benefits at all, or a very low benefit, leaving them heavily dependent on Supplemental Security Income. And while SSI does enable an individual to qualify for Medicaid in most states, the benefit is low, at about 75 percent of poverty level, he said.
SSI has been slashed nationally by $4.8 billion since 2008 and by $192 million in Alameda County, leaving a monthly stipend of $830 per person. An amendment to the Farm Bill would make ex-felons ineligible for the food stamp program, a decision that would most affect women, children and seniors.
The policy response to the need aging ex-felons face, "is disappointingly inadequate," Phillips said, "but in the current political climate, change seems unlikely."