Four Ways to Support the Housing and Reentry Needs of Older Adults

Between 1999 and 2016, the national population of incarcerated older adults grew 280 percent, largely because lengthy sentences for violent offenses surged, and admissions for older people increased (PDF). Today, nearly 200,000 people ages 55 and older—or about 12 percent of the national prison population—are incarcerated.

The growing population of older incarcerated adults, coupled with decarceration efforts and compassionate release programs (PDF), has led to more of this group being released. Older adults released from incarceration aren’t a uniform group, but they often have unique reentry needs that differ from younger people leaving incarceration. And despite the increased number of older people leaving prison—sometimes referred to as elder reentry—many communities aren’t equipped to meet their needs.

Understanding their reentry needs and building infrastructure that supports their successful return to the community will help older adults reintegrate into society following incarceration, promoting the stability and well-being of the communities where they live.

A few communities are working hard to support this population. The Osborne Association’s Elder Reentry Initiative (ERI) in New York, San Francisco’s Senior Ex-Offender Program (SEOP), and a reentry program funded by the Open Society Institute–Baltimore to support older adults released due to the Unger v. Maryland ruling are addressing what research suggests are the most pressing needs of recently incarcerated older adults. These programs link stable, accessible housing with long-term health care services and improved discharge planning to promote successful elder reentry.

Policymakers and program developers who want to support the reentry of recently incarcerated adults could consider the following steps:

1. Provide health care in residential care settings

Research shows incarceration is associated with “accelerated aging,” which results in the earlier onset of age-related health needs and an increased vulnerability to developing chronic medical conditions at a younger age than the general population. Studies have also found increased rates of mental illness compared with the older adult population outside of prison. The lack of access to high-quality care available to people in prisons across the US means many aging adults aren’t able to access vital care while incarcerated, which can lead to worsening health conditions upon release.

Despite this group’s health care needs, many recently released older adults struggle to navigate the health care system in the US and access adequate care. For people requiring high levels of care, access to stable housing, where a person can receive treatment and recuperate, is necessary.

The ERI in New York provides a model for how reentry programs can support this population by providing resources for accessing health care, benefits, and housing. The ERI was established in 2015 and is funded partially by a Second Chance Act reentry grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The program supports the reentry planning and needs of older adults who are released from three New York correctional institutions. Case managers begin working with clients 90 days before a parole board hearing and generally provide postrelease support and services for six months. The ERI offers wraparound services that address both the health and housing needs of this population—including placement in nursing facilities.

Similarly, the reentry program designed around the Unger verdict—a 2012 case that led to the release of more than 200 people in Maryland who had served sentences of more than 30 years—specifically focuses on supporting access to stable and affordable health care upon release (PDF). This includes helping people enroll in health insurance programs, ensuring prescription continuity upon release, scheduling doctors appointments, and hosting workshops on health and wellness.

2. Reduce barriers to housing

Housing is the foundation to improving other life outcomes. However, formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. And formerly incarcerated older adults experience some of the highest rates of housing insecurity and often face bias from both public housing agencies and private landlords because of their criminal histories.

Many public housing authority policies exclude formerly incarcerated people, making the transition from incarceration difficult.

Expanding the availability of housing choice vouchers through programs such as the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative can support successful reentry of formerly incarcerated people. This partnership with the state’s housing development authority and department of corrections provides vouchers and supportive services to people on parole who need housing assistance. Under this model, 93 percent of participants in the program completed their parole sentences, indicating that housing stability is important for the successful reentry of formerly incarcerated people. This is particularly true for older adults released from long incarceration stays, who may not have strong social networks to lean on upon release.

In addition, adults released from prison may require a higher level of health care, such as placement in a nursing home or even hospice. However, formerly incarcerated older adults often face discrimination by nursing homes and hospice care (PDF) upon release. Connecticut-based 60 West, a nursing home funded by the state’s Medicaid system that houses primarily formerly incarcerated people, provides a blueprint for how states can ensure this population receives adequate residential care upon release.

3. Provide long-term housing and supportive services for people unable to gain employment upon release

Many formerly incarcerated older adults have trouble obtaining gainful employment because of their criminal history, long gaps in employment because of incarceration, and lack of adequate training. They may also encounter bias from employers because of their age, health needs, or disability status. And many older adults released from prison may have chronic health conditions that prevent them from obtaining employment. As a result, many older adults have low incomes and may require long-term income supports or housing support to cover rent.

Permanent supportive housing programs such as the Massachusetts Community Support Program for People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness (PDF) can help older adults at risk of homelessness receive necessary services and access stable housing. The program provides community-based support services for people experiencing chronic homelessness in combination with permanent supportive housing. Medicaid funds these services, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care program (PDF) pays housing costs.

Though this program is not specifically designed for formerly incarcerated older adults, it shows how states can support the long-term housing and care needs of this population if combined with efforts to reduce housing discrimination against people with criminal histories (PDF).

4. Provide transitional housing and support building social ties

For many formerly incarcerated people, family or friends are an important source for immediate housing upon release (PDF) and are key to successful reintegration. But for people who’ve served long periods, these ties may be weakened, limiting options for both housing and ties to community, both of which are important for successful reentry.

SEOP provides both transitional housing and social support for participants to help them integrate into their communities upon release. This program, run by Bayview Senior Services, provides support to people 50 years and older who are about to be released from prison or who have been incarcerated. The SEOP places participants in one of two transitional homes where they can receive wraparound services and reengage with their community before transitioning to more permanent housing.

Special thanks to Jesse Jannetta and Leigh Courtney, who contributed to the review of this research, and to Janeen Buck Willison, who also contributed to the review of this research and consulted on the development of this post.