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HIS WAY OUT

Prisoner U10613 has moved up. He has traded a 6- by 9-foot cell for a three-bedroom bungalow. He gets to watch Oprah every day in his favorite brown captain's chair.

He loves Oprah because, like Robin Hood, she helps the poor by giving them new cars or homes. He rarely misses her, because he isn't going anywhere. A judge took his driver's license years ago.

Most mornings, Jack Bass, 77, makes oatmeal with diced apples and pancake syrup in his pink home on Echo Court, tucked away in a waterfront neighborhood shaded by trees and vines. He rakes a few leaves from his yard and pulls water weeds out of his canal. He might climb into the front seat of his plum-colored GMC Caballero and turn the key, just to hear it roar to life.

Then, he'll return to his chair, switch on Wheel of Fortune, light a Misty 120 Lite and forget to turn on the air purifier next to him, like he's supposed to.

It's not the only thing he is likely to forget. Memories unravel in his mind like runs in a stocking. Some day he might forget he killed a man.

Or that he's supposed to be in prison until he's 84, but he's not because he's old and sick and too much trouble.

Every year, prisons are groaning with more graying inmates such as Bass.

Tougher mandatory sentencing laws have poured more sand into prison hour glasses. More seniors are committing crimes. Like every one else, crooks are living longer.

As health care costs soar, the legal and prison systems are grappling with how to treat these inmates during their old age. Because the stress of confinement exacerbates aging, the state defines "elderly" as inmates older than 50.

Some states, such as Florida, have built prison hospices or placed elderly wards closer to hospitals, spread across the state so inmates can be nearer to their families. A few other states are developing new policies that expel old inmates with high-cost health problems early. Getting rid of an inmate with congestive heart failure, for example, can save a prison about $100,000 a year.

"That alone is making those in corrections and also state legislators take note and ask, "What are you going to do?' Because baby boomers are coming," said John Miles, executive director for program services at the American Correctional Health Services Association. "The real decision for correctional administrators is are they really a threat to the state or the country?"

In Florida, a prisoner has to be severely disabled to win parole for health reasons.

But occasionally an inmate ends up back in court, forcing a judge to ponder the question showing up on dockets with more regularity.

How do you punish ailing elderly criminals such as Jack Bass?

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Liquor took a liking to Jack Viverette Bass when he was 6 weeks old. His drunk father poured white lightning from a Coca-Cola bottle down the baby's throat to keep him quiet.

Bass began drinking heavily while he was an Army medic in Germany during the Korean War. In the States, he lived as a South Florida butler, Key West bait-shop owner and Miami Herald press operator, where he'd cap graveyard shifts with 5 a.m. eye-openers.

He retired, first to North Carolina, where he earned his first DUI, and later to Inverness, where he sipped at least a 12-pack of Old Milwaukee a day. His wife, Janet, left him in part because he couldn't put down a beer.

He was already drunk when he stopped by the Fraternal Order of Eagles club No. 3992 on the morning of Sept. 16, 1998.

There, he slugged down three more beers and invited Lewis Stephen Bullock, the club's 65-year-old secretary, to lunch. They never made it.

Bass drove his black GMC Caballero off State Road 44 and struck two trees and a utility pole before the car's front end rested partly submerged in Lake Henderson, not far from downtown Inverness. The front windshield shattered. The driver's side door crumpled. The right front of the car blew open.

Bullock died on the spot. His wife had just put their wedding and honeymoon pictures in a photo album. They had been married six months.

A state trooper smelled alcohol on Bass, whose blood-alcohol test registered at 0.22, nearly three times the state's legal threshold.

"I wasn't drunk," Bass, whose long, narrow face resembles Ray Walston, who played Uncle Martin on My Favorite Martian, would repeat over and over.

He fought everything in court, hired and fired lawyers and even bought another Caballero for an expensive accident reconstruction.

He was going 49 mph, he said, not 94, as the Florida Highway Patrol charged. He wasn't drunk; a truck ran him off the road.

Bullock would have survived, Bass said, if he were healthy. He whispered to his lawyer _ loud enough for the victim's family to hear _ "Lou would have died anyway."

"He was fragile, I say, he couldn't walk," Bass said recently, shuffling to demonstrate Bullock's stiff movements. "He could only wear loafers. He couldn't tie a shoestring. It would have broken his back. The autopsy said he died of a broken collarbone. How many people you know die of a broken collar bone?

"I hate to say it, but I did him a favor."

Bullock's wife, Carol "Ricki" Bullock, said her husband suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and died of internal injuries. Bass is just doing what he has always done, she said, blaming others for his mistakes.

In 2000, Bass was convicted of DUI manslaughter.

At the sentencing, he remained unrepentant.

"I've prayed to God since this accident occurred September of '98 that the truth would set me free," he told the judge. "If I may be allowed to an appeal, I will prove that I was not totally responsible for the death of Lewis Bullock."

Bass' two daughters tried to soften his prickly words and pleaded for mercy.

"He's almost 74 years old," Cynthia Guardia said. "There must be some alternatives, because I believe jail would be a death sentence."

Bullock's daughters said mercy should be reserved for those who seek forgiveness.

"He has no guilt or remorse for what he's done, and I have no guilt or remorse in seeing him in jail for the maximum," Bullock's daughter, Lynn Ruziecki said at the sentencing. "I have never been a vindictive person, but going through a tragedy like this, I guess, people change."

Citrus County Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas sided with the Bullocks and sentenced Bass to nearly 11 years in prison. She ordered him to write an apology letter to Bullock's wife and two daughters. He never did.

He was sent to Union Correctional Institution in Raiford. The prison was first established to temporarily house sick inmates, but it now holds nearly 11 percent of the state's elderly prison population, which is 9,078 _ nearly double the amount from 2000.

Nationally, the number of inmates 55 or older grew by 85 percent between 1995 and 2003, when there were 60,300.

Bass kept busy reading books about the transcontinental railroad and by collecting and sorting trash for a few cents' pay.

One night he awoke to searing hot pain boring into the side of his head. In the morning, he saw double of everything. Another week or two later, the pain returned.

Prison officials told him his "equilibrium" was off. A friend in the prison shoe department made him an eye patch. An eye doctor finally concluded that Bass had suffered two small strokes.

Like Bass, inmates older than 55 suffer, on average, three chronic health problems during the course of their sentences. Each older prisoner costs about three times the $17,286 Florida spends annually per younger inmate, including about $3,850 for health care, according to the state Department of Corrections.

While Bass' health plummeted and costs to incarcerate him rose, he got a lucky break: The state Supreme Court in 2000 raised questions about the handling and storage of blood drawn by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for blood-alcohol tests.

The court found that the FDLE did not have clear guidelines for collecting blood evidence. Without a way of assessing whether the evidence had been handled properly, jurors could not fairly decide whether someone was drunk.

In December 2001 Bass got the news prisoners dream of: His conviction was overturned. After serving 16 months in jail or prison, Bass was released on $50,000 bail, pending a new trial.

Ricki Bullock couldn't believe the man guilty of killing her husband was free.

"To me, I thought it was over when they sentenced him to 11 years," she said.

Bass went free for nearly three years, until last August, when he pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter before Citrus County Circuit Judge Richard A. Howard, hoping for leniency.

Finally, in October, he stood before Howard for resentencing.

Bullock's wife and daughters, again, urged the judge to throw the book at the man who never apologized. The prosecutor pushed for prison time.

Bass' daughters, again, begged for mercy. Neighbors told the judge that they hadn't seen Bass drink or drive since being set free. A pastor said he attends church faithfully.

Bass, himself, strode to the podium in a navy blazer and gray slacks. He did not blame Bullock for his own death this time.

"I want to apologize and offer my sincere condolences to the family of Mr. Bullock," he told Howard. "I have learned from this tragedy."

Medical records proved just how much he had changed. He suffered from an irregular heartbeat, hypertension and "senile dementia of an Alzheimer's type," which may have been triggered by the strokes he suffered in prison or alcoholism.

He takes four pills for his blood pressure and heart condition and an antidepressant each day. He forgets to put his dentures in, Bass' lawyer said.

"Incarceration will quicken his demise," Joseph Rosenbaum reminded the judge.

If the courtroom had been a parole hearing, the pleas likely would have been rejected.

While Florida has a Conditional Medical Release policy, it's rarely used. It allows the Parole Commission to grant conditional releases for "inmates who are permanently and irreversibly physically incapacitated or terminally ill due to injury, disease or illness to the extent that they do not constitute a danger to themselves or others." Those with death sentences are not eligible.

Of nearly 26,600 Florida inmates released during the past fiscal year, just nine prisoners were set free under the policy. They were all most likely severely disabled, said state Department of Corrections spokesman Sterling Ivey.

Allowing more prisoners hobbled by poor health onto probation, which would require them to pay for their own health care, is up to the Legislature, said David L. Thomas, the former health services director for the Department of Corrections.

But judges, said Thomas, now professor and chairman of the Division of Correctional Medicine at Nova Southeastern University, also have power to grant leniency because of health problems such as Alzheimer's, which the Florida prison system does not track within its population.

Judge Howard looked at Bass' neurological tests.

He has handed out 18 life sentences since he became a circuit judge in 2001. He was a prosecutor for 10 years and a defense lawyer who handled capital cases for 13 years. He is also someone who supports better prison care.

"Dealing with the elderly as our prison population grays _ as I gray _ we have to reconsider our prison placement," he says.

His thought process during sentencings is strictly guided by law, he says. First, he considers what Florida's specific sentencing guidelines call for. Then, he weighs circumstances of a crime and what victims and law enforcement say. Then, he considers other elements the law allows, such as whether a defendant requires specialized treatment for a physical disability or a mental disorder that is unrelated to substance abuse or addiction.

Lastly, he weighs such factors as the burden an ailing inmate could put on taxpayers.

"We have to use a common sense approach to see if this is the kind of person that deserves to be in prison," says Howard. "A lot of people don't understand _ prison is a last resort."

He debated the merits of making taxpayers pay for an old man's mounting doctor's bills. He weighed justice against what would be considered humane. He considered whether the frail 5-foot-10, 160-pound Bass _ who relies on one pair of eyeglasses to see near and another to see far _ posed any danger to the general public.

He called it the hardest sentencing he ever considered. Then he ruled that Bass could live at home on probation for the next 15 years, or until he's 92.

You'll probably die first, the judge told him.

"You got to give that old judge credit," Bass said, "not putting an old man in prison to die."

To the Bullock family, an unrepentant and undeserving convict is not paying for his crime. He gave Ricki Bullock about $60,000 in a wrongful-death civil settlement, but she said all that he has suffered is not punishment enough for leaving her alone in a "couple's world."

But Bass feels like his life has reached a dead end.

"I don't think I'll live that long," he said. "A dog that's on a leash. All he can do is bark."

Bass clings to a story of innocence the way he holds onto the past. Antiques such as colored glass, a wooden ice box crowned by his television and a dry sink that holds old photos, which slow his memory drain, keep him company.

He shows off a weathered 100-year-old kaleidoscope with blurry views that change with each turn, much like Bass' feelings about probation.

He's happy he isn't behind bars where, he said, "everyone in there got AIDS." But he's also angry that he has to pay the state $153.90 a month for the next 15 years as part of his sentence. And he's mad the state won't let him drive.

His Southern accent rises to a high pitch when he mimics all those he thinks have wronged him.

"You know we got Judge Roy Bean, the only law west of the Pecos," Bass said of Judge Howard. "I did send him a note, though, thanking him for not putting me in jail _ though it's going to cost me thousands of dollars. I didn't tell him that."

Two prayers hang from the walls of his home.

One is the Alcoholics Anonymous' Serenity Prayer. He said he's been sober for 4{ years.

Another is the Soldiers Prayer, written by a Civil War soldier.

O God, wash me from all my sins in my savior's blood, and I shall be whiter than snow. Fill me with the Holy Ghost for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

Although Bass' wife of 51 years left him 15 years ago, she drives him to church every Sunday.

"I went because of my downfall," he said. "The church don't believe in no drinking, and I thought it'd be good for me. . . . I believe in the Bible but had gotten away from it. I wasn't thinking."

He said a fog is beginning to cloud his mind. He said he often gets up and forgets why, leaves cigarettes burning on tables. He buys new lighters when his old ones are at his feet.

He stalls in the middle of stories saying "S_-, my mind's gone."

"I know I have dementia," said Bass, whose medical checkups and prescriptions are paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Medicare and Medicaid. "But I don't think it's so bad. When your mind is filled up with all these things that are wrong in this world, you get dementia. I don't know how to fix nothing."

He worries he will turn into President Reagan, which reminds him of the time he phoned the White House trying to complain to the president about a tax he had to pay.

"S_-, it is getting bad," he said of his memory. "You know, he was a little bitty man."

He peeks into the American Heritage Dictionary he keeps crammed with papers at the feet of his recliner, not far from the Bible and the atlas he uses to jog his memory.

"Truman. Harry Truman!" he said.

He peeked back in the dictionary.

"I got my name in here a couple times," he said before forgetting who he was thinking about. "I got it right here.

"Sam Bass!" he exclaims. "American desperado!"

But Jack Bass, the probationer, must depend on neighbors and his former wife for groceries.

She won't buy him cigarettes. For that, he drives a white, battery-operated Freedom Scooter, which doesn't require a driver's license, to the corner store. It goes about 15 mph.

"I'm under house arrest now. What's the difference?" Bass said.

Near the shed that keeps his scooter is the carport, where Bass often putters around with his 20-foot boat when he's not pulling weeds, raking the lawn or watching television.

"I haven't driven it in six years," he says with disgust.

Nearby is Bass' 1963 Corvair, covered by a tarp, and his Caballero, filled with books, rusted rakes and hand shovels, which he had hoped to polish today. Someday, he hopes to hire a boy to drive him around in it.

He sounds like a child staring at toy cars waiting to grow up so he can escape home. He reflects on what took away his keys in the first place, and a stubborn look returns.

"I was guilty because I was drinking," he repeats for the umpteenth time, "but I wasn't drunk. I was run off the road, and I'll say that to my dying day."

Drunks, he said, wake up the next morning and look out their windows to see where they parked their car.

"But I remember the accident perfectly."

Justin George can be reached at (352) 860-7309 or jgeorgesptimes.com.

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