At least 17,000 adults age 50 and older have been released from Illinois prisons since 2014, and thousands more are in line to come out soon. Older adults are less likely to reoffend than their younger counterparts but face more hurdles to successful reentry.
Before he was released from prison, Bob Covelli told everyone he knew the three things he wanted most once he got out: a job, an apartment, and a kitten. “I’m less anxious, and I’m less angry when I hear a cat purring,” he said in an interview.
Covelli was incarcerated for almost 40 years for a 1982 robbery and murder of an Elmhurst jewelry store owner. He was diagnosed with anxiety and bipolar disorder in prison, which he said helped him understand his behavior.
“I didn’t know I was experiencing manic episodes when I was stealing,” he said. “I just thought it was ‘magic time’ — that no one could stop me.”
While incarcerated, Covelli became a published poet and cartoonist, calling attention to the plight of his fellow prisoners. He got a job as a custodian, throwing out the trash, cleaning cells, and mopping up the floors. He figured he could find similar work once he was out, and the rest of his life would follow after that.
But a year and a half after leaving prison, the 68-year-old is unemployed and living at a homeless shelter — “the only place left open to me,” he said.
“The way I’m living right now, I call it ‘pretend freedom.’”
Covelli is one of at least 17,000 adults age 50 and older released from Illinois prisons since 2014, according to an Injustice Watch estimate based on state corrections data. And thousands more older adults are expected to come out in the coming years, many of whom were given long sentences at the height of the “tough-on-crime” era of the 1980s and ’90s.
Nearly 10,000 people incarcerated at the end of last year — roughly one-third of the prison population — will be age 50 or older when they are projected to be released. More than half of them are Black, and many will have served decades behind bars.
Older adults coming out of prison face unique challenges on top of the social stigma facing all former prisoners, experts said. Many end up homeless and unemployed, and their criminal records can sometimes block them from accessing safety net programs meant to prevent older adults from falling into poverty.
Many come out with chronic illnesses and disabilities, but they can be turned away from nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, leaving their families — if they have any left — to pick up the slack.
Criminal justice reform advocates want state lawmakers to allow more incarcerated older adults to get out early, so they can have a better chance at building a stable life after prison, especially because older adults are less likely to reoffend than their younger counterparts.