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Convicted Felon Or Caregiving Friend?

Gold Coat Prison Program Addresses Inmate Dementia while Softening Hearts

BY RANDI BELISOMO | randi@lifemattersmedia.org

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – When clinical psychologist Cheryl Steed first came to work at the California Men’s Colony, the behavioral specialist with no prior experience in criminal justice was expecting a tough new patient population: muscular, tattooed and intimidating.

Clinical psychologist Cheryl Steed
Clinical psychologist Cheryl Steed

What she found among those convicted of murder, battery and rape housed in the medium-security prison in San Luis Obispo was far different from her imagination.

“I was just as likely to meet old, frail men walking with a cane,” Steed said during a talk at this month’s TEDMED conference.

According to the ACLU, one-third of all inmates will be age 55 or older by the year 2030. The prediction is a consequence of tough sentencing policies in a nation where about 20 percent of inmates are serving 20 years or more.

Twenty percent of inmates at the California Men’s Colony are in their 60s and older, and Steed realized that a significant portion of these older men were suffering from dementia and other cognitive impairments.

“Imagine what it would be like to live in such an environment and not remember how you got there?” Steed said about the challenges that prison life presents for someone with dementia. Remembering the rules, when to stand to be counted, and mealtimes are just a few.

One-third of all inmates will be age 55 or older by the year 2030

That’s why Steed began working with the “Gold Coats” program, a carefully selected volunteer group of healthy inmates tasked with caring for those who are older and suffering from cognitive impairments. The chosen caregivers wear gold jackets over their prison uniforms to signify their special duty. The innovative program was created about 20 years ago by recreational therapist Katherine Evans.

Gold Coats
“Gold Coats” in California Men’s Colony

The “Gold Coats” guide their elderly friends through the menial tasks of prison life: showering, making the bed, and getting to and from the medical clinic. The caregivers also offer companionship during meals, escort inmates around the track, write letters home and keep an eye out for predatory prisoners.

“They are invaluable caregivers,” Steed said of the selected group. “We are able to keep inmates with dementia housed longer in the general population, where they have the chance to socialize.”

Though the “Gold Coats” provide priceless companionship to their frailer and elderly friends, the caregiving experience has also proven to be transformative in their own lives. Through caregiving, they have acquired new attributes of flexibility, sensitivity and tolerance for frustration.

Steed shared testimonials from the “Gold Coats” about their position:

  • Coming from a background of violence and dysfunction, we didn’t know how to trust or be trusted.
  • I ran from this job, but it meant something to me that they would give me a chance.
  • Lives can be transformed when you are needed.
  • Before I became a Gold Coat, I would have never been able to show any vulnerability. That would be a sign of weakness.

In the six years since Steed began working with the program, 10 “Gold Coats” who were eligible for parole have been released. “They see a different future for themselves, and all hope to be free one day,” she said.

The act of caregiving has awakened new empathy in the inmates, allowing them to realize the transformative force of being needed by another. To those they care for, the “Gold Coats” provide a consistent presence in a confusing environment.

“They have created a different past for themselves,” Steed said. “Seeing the changes in them changes how I view all of us as human beings.”