How to Aid People Transitioning from Prison Back into the Community During a Pandemic
Date:  05-14-2020

Report finds that providing phones, adequate medication, hotel rooms, and job training to people released from prison is necessary, and has bipartisan support
From the report Helping People Transition from Incarceration to Society During a Pandemic by Health in Justice Action Lab, Data for Progress, and the Justice Collaborative Institute:


The First 72+, a nonprofit in New Orleans that works with people reentering society after incarceration, keeps an office directly across from the New Orleans Parish Jail. This makes it easier for people who are released from jail to walk across the street and immediately receive a helping hand. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, all interactions must happen at least 6 feet apart. So, there’s a phone in a mailbox and a list of mentors to call. But the residents and mentors at First 72+ were insistent on one thing —those reentering society needed help now more than ever.

In the best of times, the reentry process is extraordinarily difficult and emotionally taxing. Returning people are rarely truly free, as they typically must navigate a long list of onerous rules. This may include electronic monitoring, housing restrictions, and curfews. They must also struggle against the sanctioned stigma of a criminal record, restricting education, employment, and housing opportunities. Since healthcare, substance use treatment, and other support services are utterly lacking behind bars, reentry is a time of extreme physical and mental health risk. This includes the odds of fatal overdose, which is up to 130 times more likely for those in the first two weeks post-release than in the general population.

But these are not normal times. The coronavirus pandemic is drastically compounding the challenges of reentry. With the economy in freefall, some requirements of supervised release— like obtaining housing and employment—are virtually unattainable. People reentering society are facing increased risk of homelessness, as halfway housing is unavailable and their own families may be reluctant to take them in if they come from facilities with COVID-19 infections. Increased reliance on communication over the phone and the web for health and other services make the digital divide among returning people literally a matter of life and death.

The bottom line is that systems designed to assist reentry—crude and insufficient as they were—are no match for these times. Prisons and jails must release more people to reduce the risk of infection behind bars, but this effort must be coupled with major scale-up in reentry services. While policymakers are ignoring the needs of reentering people, polling suggests that the public overwhelmingly supports additional measures, including:

  • 60% of all respondents, including 50% of those identifying as Republican, support supplying smart phones and phone plans for people reentering society.

  • 66% of respondents, including 61% of those identifying as Republican, support a program that would help those reentering society obtain work, training and/ or education to ensure they are able to provide for themselves.

  • 53% of respondents support providing hotel rooms to allow individuals to self-isolate upon release if they have been exposed to coronavirus behind bars.

  • 56% of respondents—including 51% who identify as Republican—agree that returning citizens should be provided 12 months of stable housing. Continue reading >>>

  • 52% of respondents support the temporary repeal of criminal record bans for healthcare profession licensing for people otherwise qualified and not a risk.

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