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Post-Prison Life: The Struggle for Older Adults

From learning about smartphones to finding employment and health care, starting over in society isn't easy

By Ellen Marks

Gary Pennington had to learn a whole new way of life. For starters, he was confronted with a digital world that had evolved light years beyond the pagers and pocket calculators commonplace in his day. He had to navigate the complex world of health care and regain the trust of certain family members who had shunned him.

headshot of a man. Next Avenue, post prison
Gary Pennington  |  Credit: Ellen Marks

But among the most difficult adjustments, he says, was learning to be among people without having to figure out who might kill you.

Pennington, 66, is among the population of older people who struggle to find their way upon release from decades-long prison terms. They went in when they were young, many sentenced to life for violent crimes. Some were imprisoned when three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing were used as ways to crack down on crime.

Particular issues include "greater rates of homelessness, low employment, increased anxiety, fragmented community and family ties, chronic medical conditions and increased mortality rates."

And when they are released decades later, they face a world of complicated issues that simply don't affect their younger counterparts.

"While reentry (into society) is full of challenges for most individuals of all ages returning from prison, older adults face additional obstacles and heightened complexities," says a study by the Osborne Association, a New York-based nonprofit that provides services to people who have been incarcerated.

The Challenge of Reentry

Particular issues include "greater rates of homelessness, low employment, increased anxiety, fragmented community and family ties, chronic medical conditions and increased mortality rates," the study says.

Pennington went to prison in 1978 when he was 21, sentenced to life for first-degree murder. He was paroled in 2011 at the age of 54, after serving his time in Oklahoma prisons. He moved to New Mexico upon release so he could live with his sister. But other family members were ashamed of him, and he still has one young relative with whom he's never spoken.

As for the fear of being killed at any moment, Pennington explains it this way: "I've had to change a lot of my behavior. I'd go to the mall and make eye contact with every person in there, because in prison, you do that to see who's angry, who's carrying weapons, who you talk to, who you don't. So, I scan the faces of every person at the mall, more than I would do any shopping."

When James Humiston got out of prison in New Mexico three years ago, he had a check for $360 but couldn't cash it because he didn't have proper ID and no checking or savings accounts.

headshot of a man. Next Avenue, post prison
James Humiston  |  Credit: Ellen Marks

At 68, Humiston was assigned to a halfway house, where he got help applying for benefits and finding a landscaping job at an Albuquerque golf course. Like many who have been locked up for decades, he had to find medical care and insurance for his health, which had sharply declined over the years.

In fact, experts consider someone who turns 50 after years of incarceration as "physiologically, more like a 60- or 65-year-old," says Laura Roan, program director of Osborne's Elder Reentry Initiative.

"That's what trauma, that's what violence, that's what poor nutrition, that's what racism will do to your body. And sometimes that's what the life before prison has done, or before prison plus prison," she notes.

The average age of death in New York prisons, for example, is 58, Roan says. Nationwide, people 50 and older are the fastest growing demographic in prison, partly because of the long sentences they are serving, according to Osborne. By 2030, one-third of all people incarcerated will be older, a whopping 4,400 % increase over 50 years.


Finding Housing

For those getting out, Roan says one of the biggest issues is housing, because older people often return with little money and few connections. Friends are long gone and family members have died. That means they can become homeless or forced into a homeless shelter, which is a difficult environment that is not equipped to meet their needs.

"I was so scared. It's like the whole world is looking at you."

"Housing is a pretty awful situation for most people," she says. "I think, from what I've heard, that's common across the nation, as well."

Evelyn James found that to be true upon release from a Texas federal prison last summer. James' near-death experience with COVID resulted in her winning "compassionate release" after serving 15 years of a 25-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter.

James, 63, didn't want to return to her Navajo Nation home because she feared being judged by those who knew her. Instead, she headed for a halfway house in Albuquerque, where she had no relatives and knew few people.

She found everything frightening, from riding the bus to learning the mysteries of a smartphone. "I didn't want to go anywhere," James says. "I was so scared. It's like the whole world is looking at you."

James was fortunate in finding the New Mexico Reentry Center and director Natasha Garcia, who helped her use a computer to apply for benefits and to find a job in a world where everything is done with skills that James sorely lacked.

James is now preparing to move into her own apartment, after overcoming deep reservations about living alone. Her husband died while she was behind bars, and her adult children are spread across the country.

"You hear about women living by themselves and getting attacked. I was thinking I would have to stay awake all night long. But people were telling me, 'You need to spread your wings. You can do it. You're strong.'"

Landing a Job

The Osborne Association's approach to elder reentry is somewhat unusual in that it starts while the person is still behind bars. A representative determines what will be needed in terms of housing — including possible nursing home care — vocational training, medical care and a host of other issues.

The person is coached on preparing for parole consideration and release, with a plan for ongoing care outside prison.

The point, says Roan, is "having … somebody who can go inside to determine what's going on for you and then not have you land in the community with $40 and no plan. That's the worst-case scenario."

Many will need work to support themselves. While they can apply for certain benefits, their Social Security checks are bound to be minimal because of the number of years they have been locked up.

"They might have been working in prison the entire time and still be making 17 cents an hour," Roan says. "But they've not paid a cent into Social Security that entire time. So they don't have any choice, some of them, but to come back and work."

"After living so many years with a limited amount of clothes and shoes, I just can't stand to ruin a good pair of shoes."

Others want to be employed because, as Roan says, "they still feel that they have many productive years left to give back to society, and they want to be engaged."

For Pennington, that meant starting a handyman business, based on a business plan he wrote during his prison years. He now has 400 customers and has just hired his first employee.

"I tell people I'll do anything — plumbing, bricklaying, carpentry — but I don't paint," he says. "Paint is too stressful. After living so many years with a limited amount of clothes and shoes, I just can't stand to ruin a good pair of shoes."

'A World That Has Moved On'

A sense of utter dislocation upon returning to a world that has moved on is hard for outsiders to understand.

Roan describes it as a distinct "identity shift," in which the newly released person must figure out who they are now. She learned this during a shopping trip she took with an older man to buy him clothing. The store had two types of boxer shorts: striped and solid. The man couldn't decide which he wanted, but a coin flip chose for him: solids.

However, upon approaching the cashier, he said, "Miss Laura, do you think we can get the stripes instead? In prison, we couldn't have stripes because they weren't allowed. I want stripes."

It was then that Roan realized the deep disconnection caused by a near-lifetime in prison and how long it might take for someone to adjust.

"Before, he made the prison choice because he had to, but now he's making the anti-choice," she says."Someday, he's going to make his choice."

Ellen Marks has been a journalist for more than three decades, including stints in Boise, Idaho, Seattle and Albuquerque, New Mexico. She retired from the Albuquerque Journal three years ago, but continues to do regular assignments for the newspaper. Read More
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