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Where do older prisoners go when they get out?

The older we get, the harder it is to think of ourselves as “old.” But as far as the government is concerned – specifically, the federal corrections system – you’re “aging” or “elderly” once you turn 50. California houses one of the country’s biggest populations of elderly prisoners. And gradually, it also releases them.

Research has shown that the older the person is, the less likely he is to return to prison after his release. People over 65 have about a zero percent chance of returning to prison. But leaving prison at an older age brings other challenges. A 2008 study found that 21 percent of California’s older parolees were homeless or living in a shelter.

Here in San Francisco, one organization is helping guide seniors back into something like the life that they once knew.

About 20 women over the age of 60 are in two single file lines, snapping their fingers and shuffling their feet.  They are line dancing. A couple of older men stand on the sidelines offering compliments that mostly go ignored. This is the Senior Center in Bayview Hunters Point. It serves breakfast and lunch, has recreational activities and classes. It’s pretty much like most senior centers, except that many of the folks who come here have a record.

“I’ve been in and out of prisons, I’m 52 yrs old I’ve been in and out of county jails and institutions for half of my life,” says  Ray Bursey.

Most recently, Bursey spent time in prison for selling drugs and committing robbery. He was released in 2009.

“At my age, jail is not an option anymore,” he says. “When I was younger, I can say jail was fun at one time. It got me off the streets, because I didn’t have a house, clean clothes when I got arrested.”

Soon after he was last released, Bursey went to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He was told to come to the senior center to find out where to take computer classes, get free clothes and find housing.

"Actually, at that time, to be honest with you, I was just trying to get off probation. It helped me get off parole, get off probation and helped me stay clean and sober," says Bursey.

At the center, Bursey met the director of the Senior Ex-Offender Program, Frank Williams. Williams was a fitting mentor. He also spent time in prison, but moved on to get two master’s degrees – in humanities and criminal justice. He knows that turning things around is possible.

Williams sits with me in his upstairs office and explains the program: “We do an intake and assessment, and find out their criminal history, personal history, if they have a work history and their treatment history. After all of that, that helps us come up with a conversation.”

This conversation is then handled by the Williams and two other case managers who work with about 200 ex-offenders each year. It’s part of an initiative started in 2002 by the San Francisco sheriff’s department.

Williams has seen how many ex-felons feel defeated and lost once released. Williams tends to take a tough love approach to their re-entry he firmly tells his clients: “You’ve got to put in some work so what can we do to help them get to where they need to get to.”

Williams then designs a series of steps, perhaps volunteer work or a meeting at City College to get into the Second Chance Program where he says many don’t know, they may be eligible to go back to school at no cost.  

Williams says that getting involved with the community is a good way for him and other ex-offenders to move on with their lives. As part of that, he spends time speaking to convicts at county jails around the Bay Area.

“I want them to be productive. I want to see them walking down the street holding their kids’ hands. I want them to be a Daddy in the neighborhood, to stand up and speak up against cat’s going the wrong way,” says Williams, his eyes welling with tears. “Our grandmothers should be able to walk down the street and nothing happen to them. My daughter should be able to walk down the street and not worry about getting snatched, if our men were out here doing what they are supposed to be doing.”

Downstairs the seniors are being served catfish and okra for lunch. The chatter spills out to the wide streets lined with small apartments and live/work lofts. There are also liquor stores only a few blocks away, and in the early morning a group of younger men were smoking weed right in front of the building. When Frank Williams arrived, they disappeared.

I meet Ted Dunlap outside the senior center. He’s quiet, not talking a lot with the others here. His arms stay folded when he tells me about the first time he was incarcerated.  He was 13 years old.

“I lost track of just being civil and being timely and I lost track of having concern and giving people trying to help me a chance to help me.”

Dunlap tells me he’s been in and out of jail his entire life. Most of the arrests were for burglaries and drug charges. He remembers Frank Williams speaking to him and other inmates at San Bruno. When he was released in his mid fifties, and found himself homeless, he came to the Senior Ex-Offender Program for help. They gave him housing in the Ulysses T. Bill building.

“I had to be independent, self sufficient, and just be accountable and I try to do those things today,” he says.

A couple of weeks pass and I go to visit Dunlap at the ex-offender house a few blocks from the senior center. I run into Ray Bursey again. He’s the house manager here. When I ask Bursey where Ted Dunlap is, he shrugs.

“No tellin, said Helen, no tellin’. He won’t even answer my phone calls,” says Bursey.

Dunlap disappeared over a week ago. He’s still on probation, and Bursey’s concerned. He knows Dunlap is one of the older ex-offenders who doesn’t have family to fall back on, so leaving the house with no explanation isn’t a good sign.

Some women are arguing on the sidewalk, so Bursey invites me inside to see the house. It’s a house over a church. We stay above the church. I sleep with God every day,” he laughs.

The house is kind of like a dorm, but mature and put together – and everything is immaculately clean. Each room has three bunk beds. Ten people live here. The rents are subsidized, some members have jobs, others have veterans benefits that pay part of their rent. Bursey points out a list posted on a bulletin board in the hallway.

No drinking. No drug use. No living in the house for more than three months, though that’s not really enforced: if they can pay the rent, they stay.

“Each individual in here has an accountability sheet, they sign in everyday,” Bursey says.

He also tells me that even at this age, living here in a house full of men, with so many rules, is a blessing. Outside there are temptations. Bursey’s constantly cleaning up crack pipes and needles thrown on the sidewalk outside of the church. There’s even a mobile methadone van that parks right in the parking lot.

Bursey takes me to the outdoor area of the house. We’re on a roof, looking over the tops of buildings, downstairs we can still hear a group of women yelling in the street.

“The neighborhood is just the neighborhood, you dig? I had a drug addiction so the things that they do outside my window, I used to do it myself. I don’t knock it, I laugh at it, it’s a reminder of who I am, but that’s what I don’t want to do anymore, the chaos the drama, the bullcrap,” says Bursey.

Housing is one of the most difficult obstacles for ex-felons, and housing in San Francisco is extremely limited. So are jobs.  Bursey knows he was lucky. He got a job as a driver at a drug rehab program where he was once a client. And because of the senior center, and his new home, he’s got support. His 80-year-old neighbor across the street said she’d cook him some pigs feet, if he’d buy them.  Just being neighborly. Which, for Bursey and other ex-offenders, is exactly what they need.

Crosscurrents Veterans
Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.