Finding steady housing is a huge challenge for anyone getting out of jail or prison. But for the elderly or disabled, many of whom have special needs, it’s an even greater problem. As more nursing homes conclude that ex-offenders are bad for business, states are scrambling for solutions of where to house them.
Connecticut opened a nursing home, 60 West, last February to house former offenders and those on parole — though officials say the facility is “just like any other nursing home” and open to anyone. Of their 49 residents, 18 of them came directly from state prison, including 15 still on parole, and the rest have spent time in state housing for mental illness or addiction.
“There’s nowhere to put them so they die a technically free man or woman in prison.”
“The Department of Corrections had a growing number of inmates who met skilled nursing home level of care criteria and were eligible to be released, but couldn’t be released unless they could get a nursing home to take them,” said Mike Lawlor, Connecticut’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning. “It was extremely difficult. Most are for-profit and are reluctant to take someone coming directly out of [prison] because they’re worried about how it would impact business.”
The problem is a pressing one, with the elderly representing the fastest growing segment of the US prison population. Roughly 5,700 inmates over the age of 65 were released from state and federal prisons in 2012, and the median age of parolees as of 2010 was 51 years old. Those who have spent time in prison may also be even more in need of medical care than others their same age. Research suggests inmates experience higher rates of hypertension, asthma, arthritis, hepatitis and some cancers than individuals that aren’t incarcerated. Some studies have estimated prisoners’ physiological age is 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age.
“One of the biggest obstacles [corrections officials] face is finding nursing home care for the former prisoners who need it,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a 2012 report on aging in prison. “Many nursing homes do not want to accept ex-felons, particularly if they were sex offenders, and those that may be willing to do so may not have any beds available at the time an individual who needs such care is released.”
Over the last decade, more states have adopted laws requiring background checks for those applying to live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Since 2004, at least 20 states have taken some action to limit former offenders’ access to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The laws were spurred by violent and sexual attacks on people living in nursing home and assisted living by fellow residents. Many families were outraged to learn that nursing homes were allowing those convicted of a sex or other violent crime to live alongside their parents and grandparents.
Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland and Virginia require a criminal background check for any nursing home applicant. Most state initiatives have focused on sex offenders, though some include anyone convicted of a violent crime.
States have had to balance protecting fragile residents from harm with not barring those with a criminal background that pose no public safety risk from finding a place to live. But before the laws, parole officers and reentry advocates say it has long been difficult to find a nursing home for those who had either completed their sentence or were released on parole. Many applying for compassionate release or medical parole, which have been promoted as a way to cut down on prison overcrowding, are turned down because they have no place to live if released.
“There are some times they might be cleared and they won’t find a nursing home,” said Fordham Law Professor Tina Maschi, who has studied aging in prison and the challenges of release. “There’s nowhere to put them so they die a technically free man or woman in prison.”
For others, the reentry plan approved by prison and parole officials isn’t much of a plan at all. Tammy Seltzer, director of the DC Jail and Prison Project, said they’ve worked with “plenty” of people whose reentry plans outlined that they were to live in a shelter upon release.
“The plan is for them to go to a shelter, but ultimately the plan is that they will be homeless,” Seltzer said. “Given the way the shelter system works, where in most cases you can’t be there during the day, it’s a very chaotic life. It’s certainly not conducive to successful reentry.”
Housing is just one item on a long list of challenges for elderly inmates reentering society, including accessing public benefits and reuniting with family members. The pace of life on the outside is disorienting for those that have been locked up for decades. “They tend to have a lot of difficult with technology, just using a fare card machine is very overwhelming and complicated,” Seltzer said.
“These are people who are extremely disabled. Very few of them are capable of doing any kind of serious damage to anyone.”
Connecticut’s solution of dedicating a nursing home to ex-offenders did not go into effect without resistance. The home faced strong opposition from the surrounding community, who feared 60 West’s residents posed a danger to their new neighbors. Many created a “No Prisoners in My Backyard” group and pushed for legislation that prohibited the state from housing those convicted of sexual assault within community-based nursing homes.
“What about the children in Rocky Hill?” one resident wrote in a testimony to the state’s general assembly. “Are these the types of criminals and mentally ill you want to place in the middle of a town in an unfenced building constructed for the frail elderly?”
Undersecretary Lawlor said the residents are no threat to public safety, and that there have been no incidents so far. Residents go through a risk assessment screening before being admitted to 60 West.
“Nobody’s placed in there unless the commissioner determines that they do not pose a risk to anybody,” Lawlor said. “These are people who are extremely disabled. Very few of them are capable of doing any kind of serious damage to anyone.”
Other states have looked to Connecticut’s example and are considering similar nursing homes of their own. Kentucky is considering opening a private nursing home for geriatric prisoners. Georgia has also proposed opening a private nursing home for those with a criminal record. But critics of that plan note that it would be run by a private prison company whose owner has overseen many of the state’s executions.
There’s an obvious incentive to such programs: if prisons move inmates out of their medical wards and into a non-correctional nursing home, they can get the federal government to pay for their care through Medicaid reimbursements rather than coming out of state coffers.
The ultimate goal, professor Tina Maschi said, is to integrate former inmates back into the community. “If people serve time, they’re supposed to have paid their debt to society. But they’re still subject to the collateral consequences,” she said. “People can’t take back what they did. But do we want to continue not to give them places to live?”