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New Law Allows for Release Consideration for Kentucky Prisoner after 54 Years

A new law is giving the hope of parole to aged Kentucky prisoner s. Amongst those is prisoner Willie Gaines Smith, who has served 54 years in prison.

Kentucky legislators approved a program that allows Kentucky Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson to make a decision, which the parole board must follow, on which prisoners will be released. The program allows aged prisoners who are not sex offenders or on death row and are considered to be low risk to qualify for release.

The law is purely about the economics of housing aged prisoners. Kentucky pays millions of dollars annually to house infirm prisoners, and the new program looks to shift that financial burden onto the federal government, who would pay private nursing homes through Medicaid to care for prisoners released on medical parole.

Smith has been in prison since August 31, 1960, for a murder and robbery he committed. In 1963, Smith was deemed insane. That diagnosis is a major contributing factor in his continued imprisonment. His co-defendant, Hassie Cane Martin, was paroled in 1981.

His mental infirmity should not be a disqualifier for parole, says one attorney. “Why has he served 54 years? Having a mental illness does not make you ineligible for parole,” said defense attorney Ted Shouse, who reviewed Smith’s prison file and says his case has “fallen through the cracks.”

The lack of family support, along with his illness, are factors that led the parole board in 2004 to order Smith to serve out his life sentence, and they are now factors being considered. “It’s a different world than it was when he came in,” said La Grange prison warden Aaron Smith. He noted that Smith, who is now in a wheelchair, is being treated for his physical and mental issues now, and finding a private nursing home to provide that care is an obstacle.

In an interview, Smith was “at times lucid and other times unintelligible.” “I want to go home,” he said. “I’ve been here long enough. I’ve served it out.” He has been in prison a decade longer than any other Kentucky prisoner.


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