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

Yusuf Madyun has been home from prison for the last two years.

“The biggest challenge, I would say, is getting acquainted and beginning to become efficient with the technology,” he says. “You know, I’m still trying to navigate my phone.”

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Today, he spends his time speaking with the young men in the Green ReEntry cohort, at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, where they respectfully call him Sheik Yusuf. 

“When I come over here and attempt to guide youngsters away from the path that I took, away from a path that leads to incarceration,” Madyun explains, “to guide them away from a path that leads to wastefulness.” 

Madyun was released from prison through a process the majority of Illinois state prisoners don’t have a chance at — parole. 

Read Part 1: 53% of IDOC Inmates Serving Life Sentences Are Over Age 55. Advocates Call for Giving Some a Second Chance

In 1967, he was Joseph Hurst — sentenced to death row for killing a Chicago police officer. A crime he says little about today. 

“What I don’t go into is to try to describe what happened and to justify my end of things because the person that was killed is not here to defend himself,” Madyun says. “I’m trying to contribute as much as I can to the good of society. And hopefully society will allow me an opportunity to do that, and we won’t harp about what happened 54 years ago.”

In 1972, he was resentenced 100 to 300 years in prison. That was before the state eliminated parole in 1978, meaning, in time, he could be eligible for it.

He wasn’t released on parole until 2021.

It’s a move the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation opposed.

“Since its inception, we object to any parole for a convicted person who killed a Chicago police officer in the line of duty,” says Joseph Salemme, director of operations for the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation.

Madyun did spend nearly 54 years in prison, and he says those years took their toll. A stroke left him without the use of his right hand.

When you see this hand,” Madyun says gesturing to his right hand, “this hand is the consequence of not having been given immediate care when the stroke hit me.”

Madyun says that’s just one example of the poor health care he and other older incarcerated people receive from the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“For example, I had trouble with my prostate and I was made to wear a catheter for 18 months before the enlarged prostate was taken care of,” he says. “There was no need for me to wait that long.”

Jenny Soble runs the nonprofit Illinois Prison Project. She argues caring for the elderly in prison is a heavy burden.

“Health care providers are thinking of things like cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension. They’re also taking care of people with cancer, cardiac disease and Alzheimer’s,” Soble details. 

“It’s not as simple as giving an elderly person a couple of pills every day,” Soble says. “Instead, prison officials need to be thinking about ramps. They need to be thinking about grab bars on toilets. They need to be thinking about wheelchair-accessible doorways and cells. They need to be making sure that elderly people have access to bunks, low bunks on the bottom of the unit. They need to be making sure that they have infrastructure to feed people who are unable to leave their cell. There are huge infrastructure challenges that come that come with caring for an elderly population.”

A recent court-appointed monitor’s report says the state is failing to sufficiently shoulder that burden.

In short, the nearly 400-page report says, “At the end of year four, the lack of progress towards compliance with the consent decree can be summarized as a failure by the state to establish the foundations of an adequate medical program in the IDOC.”

Even in a public records request, IDOC officials told WTTW News that the department “does not maintain or possess records responsive to your requests” about policies specific to older prisoners.

“I right now represent people who spend their entire days sitting in wheelchairs in the same space in the same spot in the infirmary unit where they live,” Soble says. “I have clients right now who are regularly incontinent who have wounds all over their legs because they develop bed sores, because they are paralyzed. But more importantly, because there is not sufficient care to make sure that their bodies are moved with any regularity.”

What’s more, Soble argues that caring for the elderly in prison is an extraordinarily expensive cost that falls on taxpayers.

“Elderly people as individuals cost two to five times as much to care for as non-elderly incarcerated people,” she explains.

It’s one of several reasons advocates like Bill Ryan and the group Citizens for Parole are calling for a parole system for elderly people in prison.

“It’s not a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ by any stretch of the imagination,” Ryan explains. “You have to demonstrate that your behavior has changed. You have to demonstrate that you’re no longer a threat to anybody. And most importantly, the victims’ families have a very important role to this and their voice will be heard.”

But some victims’ advocates argue that people who’ve committed crimes as serious as murder should never have a life outside prison — especially those who’ve killed law enforcement officers.

“One of the four pillars of incarceration is retribution, and that’s literally to punish people for what they’ve done,” Salemme said. “And in our mind, someone who kills a Chicago police officer in the line of duty does not warrant a second chance. They forfeited that right.”

But Soble and advocates argue older inmates are far less likely to recommit a crime — and that change is necessary.

“If nothing changes, if there’s no significant shift in the way that we think about our criminal legal system and our prison system, the elderly population in the state and in this country will just continue to grow and grow and grow. And with that, the cost of our prison system will continue to grow,” Soble argues.

They say many incarcerated people, including Madyun, can and have changed, whether or not the Department of Corrections has changed as well.

“So the specifics that are necessary to restore individual use of citizenship, they’re not there,” Madyun says. “And the Department of Correction is guilty of not providing those things that will truly restore the offenders to useful citizenship.”

One measure that allows for early release for elderly inmates is the Joe Coleman Medical Release Act, which went into effect in the winter of 2022. It allows people who are medically incapacitated or terminally ill to seek early release from the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Records from the Illinois Department of Corrections show as of March 24, 2023, the review board granted 38 applications to have sentences end early under the act. The board denied another 62 applications.

WTTW News investigative reporter and producer Jared Rutecki contributed. 

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