53% of IDOC Inmates Serving Life Sentences Are Over Age 55. Advocates Call for Giving Some a Second Chance

Despite being sentenced to live the rest of his days in an Illinois state prison, 59-year-old William Peeples still strives for a better life.

From the law library at Stateville Correctional Center, he pores over pictures of his graduation from Oakton College.

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“Presidential scholar, no less,” he boasts playfully.

It’s taken him 37 years to get to this place. 

He was convicted of murder almost four decades ago — an act for which he takes full responsibility.

“I want it to be known that I’m not innocent. I am guilty of the murder I committed. I didn’t go in with the intention of killing anybody, it was supposed to be about a burglary,” Peeples says. “That person came home and surprised me and I panicked and now another human being is dead.”

In 1990, Peeples was sentenced to die. But his sentence was later commuted by then-Gov. George Ryan in 2003, along with 166 others.

Instead of death, Peeples is serving life.

He met friend Bill Ryan when Peeples was on death row and Ryan was advocating against the death penalty.

Ryan says death and life sentences are much the same.

“It’s not by lethal injection. It’s by staying in a 6x9 cell for the rest of your life and dying in prison,” Ryan says. “It’s the death sentence by another name.”

Peeples says his early years in prison were still drug- and alcohol-addicted — and violent.

But in the last 27 years, he says he’s become a different person.

He converted to Islam, even pausing for a short prayer before his WTTW News interview. 

He’s become an accomplished and published writer, and was even accepted to the Northwestern Prison Education Program. Along with his classmates, Peeples will earn his bachelor’s degree this year. He is already working as a teaching assistant to help fellow incarcerated students.

Despite it all, Peeples knows there are few ways he’ll ever see the outside of Stateville prison.

“Other than clemency from the governor or a change in the laws, I don’t have any other way out of prison,” Peeples says, “I’ll unfortunately die here.”

In 1978, Illinois shifted from an indeterminate to a determinate sentencing system — effectively eliminating parole as most people are familiar with it. Defendants are sentenced with a fixed release date and can earn time off statutorily or through participating in programming, like education or treatment programs. Instead of parole, defendants are under Mandatory Supervised Release upon release for the remainder of their sentences.

Ryan and a group called Citizens for Elder Parole are working to restore the state’s parole system for inmates over the age of 55, who make up more than 53% of IDOC inmates serving a life sentence.

In prisons, social scientists consider 55 and older to be elderly — 10 years younger than in the free world. 

“First, the health care in prison is universally abysmal, and so people age at a much more rapid rate,” explains Jenny Soble, who runs the Illinois Prison Project, or IPP. “Second, the group of people who are harmed by the carceral system who end up in prisons in the first place age faster in the free world because of the same factors that lead to their incarceration, poverty, addiction and other socioeconomic challenges.”

IPP works to find levers to release people from prison, depending on their circumstances.

Soble points to the state’s tough-on-crime sentencing structure — including three strikes and truth-in-sentencing laws — leading to the escalating number of older people behind bars.

“Since 2005, the number of people who are serving sentences longer than 20 years has really skyrocketed. It’s moved from just over a quarter of the population to a lot closer to more than half to even two-thirds of the population,” Soble says.

This means the number of elderly people incarcerated has climbed from 3.48% of the inmate population to 14.1% between 2005 and 2023.

Advocates argue that at their advanced age, elderly prisoners are far less likely to commit crime if released.

“You’re not the same person you were 20 years ago, nor am I the same,” Ryan says. “We change and we grow, and the people in prison do the same thing.”

During the General Assembly’s recent legislative session, state Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-27th District) introduced HB2045, which would’ve restored parole for inmates over the age of 55 who’ve served at least 25 consecutive years.

Advocates emphasize it’s not a guaranteed release, but an opportunity for inmates to make their case to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. HB2045 was sent to the House Rules Committee and was not called for a vote.

But Joseph Salemme of the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation is opposed, and points to the current parole process for people sentenced before 1978.

He argues the process means victims’ families relive the trauma of losing a loved one during parole hearings — and that justice isn’t served if a convicted murderer is paroled.

“Every year they’re living this agony and wondering if this is the time where the person who killed their loved one is getting out and being free,” Salemme says. “It’s brutal on them.”

Salemme argues the clemency and appeals processes exist to decide who gets out of prison and when. Thus, he says, an elder parole system isn’t necessary.

But the clemency process is uncertain, up to the governor’s discretion.

As Peeples awaits word on his clemency application, he finds ways to maintain hope.

“I’ve proven that I can be rehabilitated, and even more than that, I’ve proven through my interactions with some of the students, my own family, that I can substantively contribute to my society and people around me — that I will be an asset to people in my community as opposed to someone who should be caged and feared,” Peeples says.

“I never expected to get this old,” he continues. “It still floors me when I think about 59. I really thought — irrespective of being off of death row — that I’d be dead by now. My mere existence gives me hope.”

WTTW News investigative producer Jared Rutecki contributed. 

Read Part 2: From Mobility Issues to Alzheimer’s and Cancer, Advocates Say Illinois Prisons Are Struggling to Care for an Aging Population

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