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Releasing elderly prison inmates could save Illinois a fortune — without endangering public

Chicago Sun Times

Tuesday, August 13, 2019  |  Article  |  Jennifer Soble and Bill Ryan

Corrections (74)

Illinois spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year locking up elderly people like Janet L. Jackson.


Although just 65 years old, Jackson’s arthritis means that she often needs a wheelchair to get around the Logan Correctional Center, one of only two women’s prisons in Illinois. But her mind is sharp. A voracious prisoners’ rights advocate, she fought to make Logan ADA compliant for the many disabled inmates the state continues to incarcerate.


An ordained minister and certified paralegal, Jackson mentors younger women and helps others with their cases to prevent anyone else from dying in prison. In the 33 years she has been in Logan on a life sentence for aiding in the murder of her abusive husband, she has never once had an institutional infraction.



Sherman Morissette was sentenced to natural life for robbing a cab driver at knifepoint, though no one was hurt and Morissette is a Vietnam veteran. Thirty-five years later, Morissette wakes up at 4 a.m. everyday inside the Stateville Correctional Center.


Morissette moves gingerly; he’s waiting for a double hip replacement to treat the osteoarthritis that ended his 20-year career as a prison paralegal and limits his mobility. Before everyone else awakes, he has read, prayed and completed puzzles to keep his 69-year-old mind sharp.


Morissette will spend the rest of the day reading, helping others with their legal cases, and writing to his friends in the free world.


Nearly 20% of the inmates in the Illinois Department of Corrections are elderly. That figure that has more than doubled since 2010, and it will climb past 30% by 2030. Tough-on-

crime legislation in the 1980s and ‘90s abolished parole in Illinois and made it nearly impossible for violent offenders to earn “good time” credit.


Extremely long sentences and the absence of parole means that more and more people will follow in Jackson and Morissette’s shoes; they will remain in prison decades longer than necessary for them to rehabilitate themselves. Like Jackson and Morissette, one in seven will be sentenced to die in custody.


Their incarceration is multiplying our state’s gargantuan debt. Illinois spent $1.6 billion on corrections in 2018, more than the entire $1.3 billion shortfall in the state’s 2020 budget.


Because of their significant medical needs, elderly people in prison cost two to five times more to incarcerate than average. Rethinking the way we incarcerate elderly people could help close the budget gap. Using a conservative incarceration estimate of $70,000 a year per elderly person, releasing just the elderly people who have already served 20 years in prison would save Illinois $200 million every year.


Despite the enormous cost, incarcerating people like Jackson and Morissette does not make us safe. Elderly people, especially those who have served significant prison sentences, almost never reoffend.


In 2012, the state of Maryland released nearly 200 elderly people who had been convicted of murder and had served more than 20 years. Five years later, the group has a recidivism rate of 3%. Ten minutes with Jackson and Morissette helps explain why; in addition to being physically incapable of reoffending, many elderly inmates have spent decades on self-improvement, education and spiritual growth.


In fact, because elderly people are frequently victimized in prison, releasing elderly inmates should drive down crime statewide.


Although they are remarkable people, Jackson and Morissette are in no way unique. Like thousands of people, they are trapped in a system that has made no space for redemption, personal growth, or changed circumstances. We have failed them, the thousands of others like them, and ourselves.


Our insistence on perpetual punishment disregards the strength of the human spirit, has sucked our resources dry, and has made us less safe. It is time for Illinois to do better, and to actively correct the harm that perpetual punishment has inflicted on us all.


Jennifer Soble is the executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing Illinois’ prison population through direct representation. Bill Ryan has been a prison reform activist since 1993, and led the movement to abolish the death penalty in Illinois.