S.D. Prison Seeks Home For Felon

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Howard Christensen is considered the nation's longest-serving inmate, a slightly demented, cantankerous killer jailed in 1937 when he was 17.

After 58 years, prison officials want to put him in a nursing home but are not sure whether they can find any takers.

Christensen, 75, has spent most of the past six decades in the South Dakota State Penitentiary and in hospital psychiatric wards.

He is now in a cell in the prison's wing for mentally disturbed inmates, where his care costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a year. Medicare could pay the bills if he lived outside prison.

"The world has changed a lot since 1937. He's a difficult person, and with the notoriety of the case," finding a nursing home willing to take Christensen will not be easy, said Rich Wiese, the penitentiary's spokesman.

Even if a nursing home is found, officials would have to determine that he is not a threat to society, and Gov. Bill Janklow would have to reduce his life sentence to time served, Wiese said.

A prison geriatric ward would be another alternative, but South Dakota lawmakers have been reluctant to create such a facility.

Still, the case shows that South Dakota, like other states, is ill-equipped to deal with aging prison populations, said Democratic state Rep. Pat Haley, a former prison guard who has interviewed Christensen for a book.

Christensen and another 17-year-old hitchhiker, Norman Westberg, shot and bludgeoned 28-year-old schoolteacher Ada Carey in a robbery. Westberg hanged himself in 1943.

Christensen was put in a mental hospital nine times. Doctors gave him electroshock treatments and even considered performing a frontal lobotomy to make him more docile.

In prison, he harassed visitors, refused to bathe and was so unpleasant that officials feared other inmates would attack him.

He became eligible for parole in 1975, and spent time in two halfway houses, but was returned to prison after "acting peculiar," begging cigarettes, showing bad table manners and refusing to change his clothes, according to state records.