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June 11, 2024

The Struggle of Reentry: A Neglected Issue Concerning Older Adults

Lucas Espinosa
The PDF which includes endnotes and footnotes in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 45 Issue5.

When discussing support for older adults, a specific category that is widely overlooked is the issue of those who have been released from prison and are struggling with reentry. While there is recognized support for both older adults by themselves, as well as those who are released from prison, the intersectionality between the two deserves far more consideration due to the alarming number of struggling individuals who fall under that category. 

In recent history, adults aged 55 years or older have been the fastest growing population in prison. In fact, it is predicted that by 2030, a third of the prison population will be at or above the age of 55, as opposed to only 4.3% in 2003.  This is due to more older adults being sentenced to prison and fewer people being released from it. A major result of this

When older adults are released from prison to reenter society, one major concern is their mental health. Prior to release, it is estimated that 40-60% of aging individuals in prison have a mental  illness,  yet only a third get treatment. Additionally, older prisoners have a notably higher risk of developing mental illness due to experience with violence as well as social isolation. These mental health risks make reentry into society significantly more challenging, as a lack of support for those who are struggling can have grave consequences. Aging adults have also shown higher rates of anxiety upon release from prison, which often leads to an increased risk of post-release suicide. While there is no singular cure for mental health issues, especially regarding the formerly incarcerated, it is crucial to bring awareness to this specific issue as any form of support can have a significant impact.

In addition to mental health concerns, physical health is another issue of concern regarding aging adults and reentry. Studies have shown that prison physically ages the body faster than the outside world, resulting in imprisoned individuals at the average age of 59 experiencing similar health conditions to those who are not imprisoned at the average age of 75. These individuals likely require multiple medications at the time of their release, yet most are discharged with little or no medication. Additionally, most former prisoners reenter the same unsafe communities that they lived in prior to imprisonment, however, they return less able to defend and protect themselves, posing a major health risk. This is where older adults face a significant disadvantage following release. With access to efficient healthcare already posing a challenge to a large majority of the population, it is near impossible for formerly incarcerated older adults to acquire what is necessary and sustainable for their survival. 

Similarly, older adults especially struggle with their finances following reentry. A combination of having minimal savings prior to incarceration, as well as weakened family and community connections, essentially leaves formerly imprisoned adults with no assets after their  release.  A majority of those released from prison are left unable to work, as they may be physically unfit to work in their prior job, or they simply are unable to return to their prior job. To make matters worse, it is significantly more difficult to get hired with a criminal record, leaving older adults with limited options. Even if they find a job, they often face the possibility of homelessness, as private landlords typically use a screening process to avoid those with a prior criminal history. In fact, former older prisoners are over ten times more likely to face homelessness than the general public.

Another overlooked but equally important issue is their social struggles upon reentering society. Due to their age, oftentimes their family and relatives will have passed away by the time of their release, and they may have lost contact with friends and additional contacts that they once had. Additionally, they may not be familiar with many essential features of modern society, such as technology and transit.  Depending on the age in which they were imprisoned, many older adults may be missing skills including cooking, shopping, or banking, and have no one to teach them.  In addition, loneliness can be detrimental to the wellbeing of an older individual, and can elevate the feeling of hopelessness.

When examining the extensive list of hardships that older adults face during reentry, it may seem like a problem too substantial to fix. However, several programs address these issues and concerns regarding reentry. The Senior Ex-Offenders Program in San Francisco provides several services including medical, social, financial, mental health, and employment, as well as training in basic life skills like cooking and shopping. Another notable program in San Francisco is the Osborne Association’s Elder Reentry Initiative, which provides many of the same services as well as support prior to reentry so older adults have a support system as soon as they are released.

In general, reentry programs for older adults are effective in personalized care rather than a set form of general help. Every person is unique in what they require following their release from prison, and it is important for reentry programs to recognize this and provide services accordingly. For example, an older prisoner may desperately need assistance with their mental health, while another older prisoner may have finance as their most pressing concern. Because of the unique circumstances of every older prisoner upon reentry, it is crucial that these programs attempt to provide care in the different areas the older prisoners may need. While San Francisco has several reentry programs, the demand for these programs is far more widespread. The most feasible solution is the continued support and expansion of these programs throughout the country, providing critical aid and assistance to formerly incarcerated older adults upon reentry.

Lucas Espinosa,

Freshman, American University

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