A Better Return for Older Prisoners

15 August 2019

FOR DANIEL, A 56-year-old from Brooklyn, being released from prison after 25 years meant returning to a completely foreign New York. 

"It's been very overwhelming, to say the least – something as simple as using a phone or riding the trains, interacting with family and just people in general. It's a work in progress," says Daniel, who was released on parole from the state-run Fishkill Correctional Facility in April after serving the minimum sentence for his first-degree robbery and burglary convictions. U.S. News is withholding his last name to protect his privacy.

By Gaby Galvin, US News & World Report, Staff Writer

Prison left Daniel with a traumatic brain injury, spinal problems and post-traumatic stress disorder – health issues that have compounded the broader challenge he faces adjusting to the world outside. But he's receiving treatment through a program that seeks to help people like him, part of a population often forgotten or written off: older adults who have spent a considerable period of their lives behind bars, and who can return home lost, confused, aimless and alone.

Myriad services exist to help older people or those affected by the criminal justice system, but rarely do they overlap. The elder reentry initiative aiding Daniel is run by the Osborne Association, a criminal justice-focused services provider and advocacy group, and has served 388 New Yorkers since its inception in 2015. Its case managers help recently incarcerated people transition upon their release.

The program works with prisoners 50 or older who will soon be up for parole from one of four New York City-area jails and prisons, though those within a year of their release from incarceration anywhere can also participate as long as they live in the city. Many have spent decades in prison for violent crimes, and find themselves without family or friends to help them adapt to their new life.

"What we do best is provide a steady arm for them as they're navigating going to parole board and transitioning from prison to the community," says Laura Roan, the program's manager.

Mirroring trends across the country, the U.S. prison population is aging – and quickly. The share of state and federal prisoners 55 or older has been projected to grow from about 11% in 2015 to more than 30% by 2030, according to a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In New York, the state prison population fell by nearly 20% between 2007 and 2017, but the share of inmates 50 and older nearly doubled.

Jails and prisons are typically poorly equipped to handle the complex physical and behavioral health needs of older inmates, and often, little is done within their walls to help inmates prepare for release, says Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, an independent group that oversees the state's 54 prisons.

"It's harder to manage people's care in that kind of environment," Scaife says.

Osborne's elder reentry program fits with its goals of reforming New York's parole release process, increasing the use of compassionate release and medical parole, and improving the services available to the formerly incarcerated.

Typically, Osborne's case managers begin working with eligible prisoners about 90 days before their parole board meetings, which determine whether they'll be released. The Osborne team assesses their needs – whether housing, drug treatment or HIV care will be necessary, for example – and comes up with a plan to connect the inmates with services once they're out.

Roan says Osborne's involvement with inmates while they're still behind bars can help their cases when they go before the parole board. Roughly 75% of the people they worked with through the elder reentry initiative in recent months were granted parole at their first hearing, compared with about 35% to 40% of the incarcerated population overall, according to the group's records.

"We've matched up all their needs with a provider who could help them with that," Roan says. "And then we send it to the parole board to say, essentially, 'You don't have to worry about these needs. We've got them covered.'"

The overwhelming majority of inmates Osborne works with are men. If an inmate doesn't have family available, a case manager will meet him at the jail or prison gate on his release date. They take him for his first meal, take him shopping for socks and shaving cream, and attend his first parole meeting with him. Usually, Roan says, people spend at least a few days in a homeless shelter before she's able to get them into transitional housing.

Stable housing is the No. 1 need for older adults leaving incarceration, Roan says, and is particularly crucial because homelessness can exacerbate health issues. Between 2014 and 2016, 4,899 older people released on parole from a state prison were homeless when they left, according to an Osborne report. Nearly 3,000 were directed to shelters.

Daniel says he spent about two weeks in an overcrowded, "horrible" shelter overseen by the New York City Police Department before moving to a smaller YMCA-run shelter where he has his own room. He's waiting for space to open up in a supportive housing program, which will allow him to live independently but have access to on-site medical staff and social workers.

"It's because of (Osborne) that I am not homeless," he says. "I'm in a shelter now, and it's a dire situation, but I'm safe. I'm in a clean place. There's a structure here."

For others in the elder reentry initiative, Osborne provides job training and legal services. Case managers teach people how to use cellphones and ride the subway. They help people apply for Medicaid coverage and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which pays for basic needs like food and shelter for low-income older and disabled people.

While Osborne tries to bridge as many gaps as possible, bureaucratic hurdles remain. For example, the application process for SSI can take 12 to 18 months, and incarcerated people can't start that process until 90 days before their release dates.

Even taking initial steps to apply for services and benefits can be formidable. Public agencies "can have questions that are very intrusive and intimidating to me, after being in prison for so many years," Daniel says. Osborne's case managers "have literally taken me by the hand and come with me to all the things I need to go to."

Roan says her team's role goes even deeper than helping former inmates navigate the complex web of social services and post-release logistics. Often, she says, people who have been incarcerated for much of their adult lives aren't quite sure who they are outside the confines of prison, and need help reforming their identities – or forging new ones.

"You think about restarting your life, in terms of housing and job and clothes and all the technology – you think about that stuff," Roan says. "But figuring out who you are is something they all struggle with if they've been in a long time."

The Osborne team typically works intensively with people for about six months, at which point the former inmates generally are able to manage on their own. To Roan's knowledge, just two people they've worked with have returned to jail or prison on a new charge, though Osborne hasn't been closely measuring the program's recidivism rates or other long-term outcomes.

Similar programs have sprouted elsewhere in the U.S.: In San Francisco, for example, the Senior Ex-Offender Program provides addiction recovery and mental health services, clothing and hygiene products, and other supports for recently released adults who are 50 or older.

The existence of these programs "speaks to a dire need for support for (older) people coming home, who are even more vulnerable than a 25-year-old coming home from prison," Scaife says.

In New York, the need for such services could become even greater as the state's criminal justice system continues to evolve. Recent legislation in the New York Senate, for example, called for the state parole board to evaluate inmates who are older than 55 and have served at least 15 years in prison for possible release, even if their minimum sentence had not been completed. The bill has not made it out of committee in recent legislative sessions, though.

For now, the Osborne Association and its partners are looking to expand the elder reentry initiative to serve more correctional facilities in New York, and to continue bridging the gap between services designed for the aging and those for newly released inmates.

"We're really hoping to show aging providers that formerly incarcerated people are in and among them already," Roan says. "They're in their senior centers – they're just not recognizing this distinct need that they have."