“‘I Call It Pretend Freedom’: Older Adults Coming Out of Illinois Prisons Face Steep Roadblocks in Their Reentry Journey”
Elder, Bob Covelli, pictured in front of a residential building.

This reporting from InjusticeWatch examines issues facing older adults who are or have been incarcerated across the country.

“Before he was released from prison, Bob Covelli told everyone he knew the three things he wanted most once he got out: a job, an apartment, and a kitten. “I’m less anxious, and I’m less angry when I hear a cat purring,” he said in an interview.”

Imagine spending nearly four decades of your life behind bars, only to be released into a world that has dramatically changed. This is the reality for individuals like Bob Covelli, who was imprisoned for a 1982 robbery and murder. While he had dreams of a job, an apartment, and a kitten upon his release, the transition to so-called freedom has been far from easy.

Unique Challenges for Older Adults:
“Nearly 10,000 people incarcerated at the end of last year — roughly one-third of the prison population — will be age 50 or older when they are projected to be released. Older adults coming out of prison face unique challenges on top of the social stigma facing all former prisoners, experts said. Many end up homeless and unemployed, and their criminal records can sometimes block them from accessing safety net programs meant to prevent older adults from falling into poverty.

Many come out with chronic illnesses and disabilities, but they can be turned away from nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, leaving their families — if they have any left — to pick up the slack.

Criminal justice reform advocates want state lawmakers to allow more incarcerated older adults to get out early, so they can have a better chance at building a stable life after prison, especially because older adults are less likely to reoffend than their younger counterparts.

‘We chose as a society to hand out these really crazy sentences — focusing specifically on Black and brown men — for several decades, and our answer to that is we just want to throw you away, and you just have to figure it out,’ said Avalon Betts-Gaston, project manager for the Illinois Alliance for Reentry and Justice, a coalition of legal aid and direct-service organizations.”

Covelli’s story is not unique. Thousands of older adults have been released from prisons in Illinois since 2014, and many more are expected to follow in the coming years due to excessive sentencing during the “tough-on-crime” era of the 1980s and ’90s. Here’s a closer look at some of the unique challenges they face:

  1. Employment and Housing:
    Finding a job and securing stable housing are two fundamental challenges for older adults post-release. Despite their willingness to work, they often encounter discrimination due to their criminal records. This discrimination, combined with the physical demands of some jobs, limits their employment prospects. Affordable housing, which is often older and less accessible, further compounds the problem.
  2. Health Issues:
    Years of incarceration take a toll on an individual’s physical and mental health. Many older adults leaving prison suffer from chronic illnesses and disabilities, a result of inadequate healthcare within the correctional system. These health issues make it even harder to find suitable employment and housing.
  3. Limited Access to Safety Nets:
    Former prisoners face obstacles accessing safety net programs designed to prevent poverty among older adults. Criminal records can disqualify them from essential support, perpetuating their struggle for financial stability.
  4. Restricted Access to Long-term Care Facilities:
    Older adults with disabilities may require nursing homes or long-term care facilities, but some facilities deny entry based on criminal convictions. This practice further isolates and discriminates against this vulnerable population.

Advocates for criminal justice reform emphasize the need for change to support older adults reentering society. Key reforms include:

  1. Early Release Options:
    Legislation should create pathways for the early release of older adults who have served substantial sentences, as they are less likely to reoffend. These reforms can help ease the transition and prevent homelessness.

    “Pathways for an early release in Illinois are limited. Only about three dozen people have been ordered released under a law enacted last year to create a path for parole for prisoners with terminal illnesses and those who are medically incapacitated. Another measure to open parole to elderly prisoners who’ve served at least 25 years has stalled in the state Legislature.”
  2. Rehabilitation and Preparation:
    Incarceration should involve programs that prepare individuals for life after prison. As society evolves, these programs should equip prisoners with essential skills to navigate the outside world.

    “At least in there, I felt respected for who I am,” Covelli said. “Out here, I do everything that’s asked of me, but it never feels like enough.”
  3. Affordable and Accessible Housing:
    Efforts should be made to increase accessible housing options and ensure that halfway houses can accommodate individuals with disabilities. The article reports that “it’s estimated that former prisoners age 45 and older are 12 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.”

    “Many of the state’s halfway houses are also inaccessible to people coming out of prison with disabilities, said Ashley Bishel, a staff attorney at the Uptown People’s Law Center, a Chicago-based civil rights organization that represents current and former Illinois prisoners. And because they can’t find an approved host site that meets their mobility needs, some disabled older adults end up staying in prison while they’re on parole ‘when they were supposed to be out in the community,’ she said.”
  4. Fair Nursing Home Access:
    Nursing homes and long-term care facilities should be more inclusive, considering individual cases rather than blanket restrictions based on criminal records.

    “Anybody with any history of being a child predator or sexual offender will never get into a nursing home,” she said. “Even if they had bilateral strokes — can’t move their arms, can’t move their legs — and are clearly not able to do any harm, they won’t get in.”

Click here for the full article with more statistics and details on Covelli’s story.