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SAN FRANCISCO – Now 57, Jeffrey Washington has been in and out of the criminal justice system for the past 24 years.
In just a few days, he’s getting out for good.
“I’ve been to the penitentiary once. I’ve had two county convictions,” he said. “And the last thing I want to do is come back here in orange.”
Washington belongs to a rapidly growing group of inmates: older prisoners. Nationwide, there are about 250,000 prisoners over the age of 50, according to the ACLU. Because of stricter laws and mandatory minimums, many have served years or decades in prison. When they are released, they are at a unique disadvantage, as the world they are re-entering is vastly different than the world they left.
“I got a list of employers here who are willing to work with felons,” Washington said. “That’s as good as gold. This is called your prescription. You leave out of here with a prescription to stay alive and free.”
For now, Washington lives in a prison block known as the re-entry pod – a special wing in San Francisco County Jail that helps inmates re-enter the real world. It’s the first of its kind in the U.S.
The program began with the help of San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s office. At the time, he says, the U.S. criminal justice system wasn't preparing the growing number of older offenders for re-entry.
“We need to start working with seniors because it’s a growing population,” Mirkarimi said. “They could be hardened from the experiences that they’ve had either incarcerated or not.”
Frank Williams knows something about the stress of life behind bars. He was federally indicted for embezzlement, and was also convicted for narcotics possession and narcotics for sale. He says prison will age a person “10 to 12 years past your chronological age, physiologically.”
“I have feelings today,” he said. “And when you use drugs, you become numb. You don’t want to feel.”
After serving time in San Quentin and Folsom prisons, Frank Williams turned his life around 18 years ago and hasn’t looked back. He found his purpose helping others overcome addictions and struggles. That led him to become director of the Senior Ex-Offenders Program, a San Francisco-based resource program that helps older offenders find temporary housing, therapists and job counselors.
Still, seniors face significant challenges after they leave prison.
“[It’s] the shame that they get from society,” Frank Williams said. “You know, ‘You that old? You need some help? Hey, you shouldn’t have done wrong a long time ago, that’s on you. Those are your consequences.’”
It’s hard enough to start a career when you're retirement age, much less with prison time on your resume. That’s exactly what Dempsey Williams, 65, is trying to do. He’s pursuing a degree in finance and dreams of an accounting career.
Despite a past that includes a seven-year stint in San Quentin for manslaughter, Dempsey Williams’ future still looks bright because of programs like SEOP.
“To be truthful, I didn’t know what I was going to do [after prison],” he said.
With help from his SEOP case manager, Dempsey Williams now has a safe place to live as well as reliable transportation to attend classes.
“I had the support of my children and those that I encountered, like my case manager and the director of the SEOP program,” he said. “They told me they [were] proud of me, which makes my self esteem grow even stronger.”
SEOP has helped about 60 inmates achieve self-sufficiency. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for some, like Herb Johnson, it builds confidence they’ve never felt before.
“They steered me to a clean slate to try to get all my felonies down to misdemeanors,” said Johnson, who didn’t graduate from high school. “They helped me with bank accounts, and they helped me out a lot.” He added: “And when I got this certificate, I cried because I finally accomplished something in life.”
The certificate signifies Johnson’s completion of culinary school. With the help of Frank Williams and SEOP, Johnson now works five days a week, cooking meals for the very agency that got him back on his feet. If not for the program, he said he’d either be back in prison or dead.
“I don’t even think about the streets anymore,” he said.
'Nobody makes it alone'
With prison being “the intersection of so many wrongs in a person’s life,” Mirkarimi says that the program helps older offenders unlearn the kind of habits and responses that a person shouldn’t have.
Frank Williams, director of SEOP, says there weren’t any programs like this when he was in prison. If not for SEOP, he suspects that older offenders, like Dempsey Williams and Johnson, would become repeat offenders and wouldn’t have employment opportunities.
“Nobody makes it alone,” he said. “That’s the premise of our program. We should be there for them.”
Washington knows people aren’t going to necessarily care about older offenders who are trying to get back on their feet – that’s what drives him.
“I got to humble myself. I got to show up for my own day-to-day responsibilities, because nobody’s going to just give me a job and a paycheck,” he said. “It’s either change for the better or find myself back here in orange, and it is no place to be, especially at 57 years old.”