John Ellis gave away his long underwear to another prisoner — he didn’t expect to spend another winter behind bars. He packed up his stuff and carefully tucked away important papers he’d need on the outside, like prescriptions. But when his release date finally came, the Illinois Department of Corrections didn’t let him out.
“They didn’t tell me anything. I was kind of flipping out. Like what is going on here?” Ellis said.
Ellis, 52, didn’t leave prison that day. In fact, he spent an extra year inside. The state of Illinois regularly keeps prisoners with disabilities beyond their release dates because of inadequate options for housing — though it’s difficult to know exactly how often, because the department of corrections said they don’t track that number. A WBEZ review of facilities on a corrections department’s housing list found many did not accept people with a disability, including psychiatric disabilities. Equip for Equality, a disability rights advocacy group, said the situation could be a violation of laws meant to protect people from discrimination and costs the state more money than placing people in the community.
How ‘supervised release’ doesn’t work for those with disabilities
Most people in Illinois prisons have “mandatory supervised release” as a part of their sentence. It’s similar to parole: a period of time at the end of a sentence that is served in the community where people have to check in with parole officers. Mandatory supervised release saves the state money and keeps prisons from getting overcrowded. Under the program, recently released prisoners are required to have stable housing, and the department of corrections sometimes pays for placements in halfway houses so a person leaving prison has time to get on their feet.
Ellis, who was convicted of theft, served almost two years in prison and was eligible to serve the rest of his sentence in the community on mandatory supervised release. But that didn’t happen.
Ellis said prison staff told him halfway houses would not take him because he had been diagnosed with major depressive order. So he served all his time, including the supposed supervised release, in prison. When he finally got out, he was immediately thrust into homelessness.
“Something's got to change,” said Ellis just a couple weeks after getting out in April of 2018, “‘cause I’m going the wrong direction already.”
Despite months of requests, the Illinois Department of Corrections refused an interview for this story In a statement, IDOC said they would like to increase the number of housing placements they provide for people on parole or supervised release, but lawmakers would need to provide the budget for that. The department said it works diligently to provide host sites.
WBEZ obtained IDOC’s housing directory through the state’s open records laws. Most facilities on the list said they would not accept a person coming from prison who was deaf, blind, or had a psychiatric disability. After calling all 75 places, WBEZ was able to identify only 13 that would accommodate someone who used a wheelchair coming from prison — one of those facilities said they had only one wheelchair accessible room and another told us that their waiting list for an accessible bed was months long.
In 2017 IDOC said 152 people were in prison, even though their release date had already passed. (This number excludes people with sex offenses, who are also routinely kept in prison beyond their release but for a different reason.) The department of corrections does not track how many of those 152 people have disabilities. But Amanda Antholt, a lawyer with Equip for Equality, said she regularly hears from people in prison who can’t get into halfway houses because of their disability.
“As a result of that discrimination, they are spending more time in prison than they should,” said Antholt.
Antholt said this practice could be a violation of the American with Disabilities Act.
One of the men Antholt heard from is Anthony Kidd. He uses a wheelchair and spent months trying to find a place to stay when leaving prison. Kidd uses a wheelchair and said prison staff encouraged him to try to walk. If he could do it, they said, it would be easier for him to find a place.
“I started trying to walk in this walker and I fell a couple of times,” Kidd said. “You’re forcing me to do things I am not able to do.”
Kidd said the state didn’t find him a halfway house that could accommodate his wheelchair. He spent extra time in prison before he found a place on his own that would meet the requirements for supervised release, but he soon learned it was less than ideal. The apartment was on the second floor and wasn’t wheelchair accessible so he paid others who stayed there to carry him up and down the stairs.
Kidd said one day, some of the men came into his apartment and tried to rob him, and he decided it wasn’t safe to stay there. After they left, Kidd pushed his wheelchair down the stairs and crawled down after it to go stay at a cheap hotel. Antholt said at that point, he was technically in violation of his supervised release.
“It’s not safe,” Antholt said, “And it’s not fair.”
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter. Follow her @shannon_h.