Prisons as progressive punishment?” by publik15 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

May 11, 2020; Shelterforce

On its face, it makes perfect sense: Release nonviolent offenders from prisons and jails, both now hotbeds of COVID-19 infection fueled by overcrowding, poor hygiene, and a surfeit of inmates with underlying health conditions. Public health experts agree that decreasing the prison population is the best way to forestall explosive COVID outbreaks in these settings. Fewer inmates mean more space to socially distance and proportionally more cleaning products, medical supplies and PPEs for both prisoners and staff.

Nearly every one of our 1,844 state prisons has at least one reported infection; more than 35,000 infections and 345 deaths have been reported so far among inmates and staff at state and federal prisons and local jails. Indeed, the nation’s two largest COVID hotspots are both Ohio prisons, and a Tennessee prison and a California federal prison have also reported more than 1,000 cases.

The nation’s 218 immigration detention facilities are also dangerous. Of 1,736 detainees tested out of a total population of nearly 30,000, 811 (47 percent) are confirmed COVID cases. Though the highest numbers are found in the border states of Texas, California, Louisiana, and Arizona, significant numbers have also been reported in Mississippi, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that local jails, which house people not yet convicted or serving short misdemeanor sentences, are seriously moving people out of their confines. The Los Angeles County jail population has dropped by nearly 30 percent—that’s 5,000 fewer inmates. Similar percentage drops are reported in Anderson County, Tennessee; Franklin County, Ohio; and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. And Hennepin County, Minnesota, with a 44 percent reduction in jail population and Denver, Colorado, with a 41 percent release are moving even more vigorously to release pretrial, older, and sick prisoners.

The situation so far is markedly different for state and federal prisons, which seem to be moving at a snail’s pace to lessen their prison populations, comprising convicted persons and people serving longer sentences. Most recently, Virginia and North Dakota have each released more than 100 people from state prisons in April. Wisconsin has released almost 1,600 people since March 2, 2020, mostly detained for technical violations of probation or parole. Pennsylvania has released 150 inmates, and Iowa has released 811 and is in the process of releasing 482 more.

As for immigrant detainees, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reports it has released more than 900 internees since March.

Though the state and federal prison release numbers are small, we’re still seeing tens of thousands of detainees, mostly from jails, newly released in COVID-struck communities across the nation.

A new reality for the newly freed

Think what it must be like to go from prison to release in a curtailed, isolated society. The social services net that was once able to serve ex-offenders in some communities is now overwhelmed by COVID-fueled demands for help, declining donations, and diminished staff who now work primarily online. Potentially supportive family members are sequestered at home or working in “essential” high-risk environments. Employment? Forget that. Most of the industries likely to hire the formerly incarcerated, like food service, are barely surviving.

And then there’s housing. Before formerly imprisoned people can confront health issues, find stable jobs, or learn new skills, they need a place to live. Most states require housing plans for prisoners released—plans typically prepared by family, lawyers, or nonprofits. A parole officer usually checks out the proposed living arrangement in person prior to the prisoner’s release; if there’s no family to take a former prisoner in, they’re often steered to emergency or temporary beds in transitional facilities. In the best of times, these spots are limited. The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that formerly imprisoned people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general population.

In the days before the pandemic, affordable rental housing, whether privately or publicly owned, was rarely an option for ex-prisoners. Owners can use their own screening criteria to approve tenants, ones that typically rely on criminal record checks. Credit scrutiny, high security deposits, and reference requirements are also huge impediments for ex-offenders. Many public housing authorities prohibit people who have been convicted of particular types of felonies from living or visiting in their units. And, of course, there’s the ever-growing shortage of affordable rental housing in many markets. The Center for Community Alternatives, a re-entry provider and advocate in New York City, typically sees 50 percent of those leaving prison heading to shelters.

Now, none of these options work. Families with older, susceptible members don’t want a possibly infected housemate. If there’s room in halfway houses or homeless shelters, provided they’re still open, they’re now as dangerous infection-wise as crowded prison dorms. So, many newly freed inmates have now joined the ranks of the homeless.

Providers of prison reentry services are struggling to adapt, no longer able to meet with clients while still incarcerated to develop a post-release plan, and wrestling with unresponsive corrections officials to schedule phone or video visits. In California’s East Bay Area, the nonprofit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency is searching for funding to open four housing sites in addition to the 15-bed home in East Oakland that they already have. Their gaze is on a 120-unit single-room-occupancy hotel in West Oakland. Advocates with Texas Appleseed, a justice-focused pro bono law firm, argue that the thousands of empty hotel rooms across the country should now be opened to all unsheltered people, including those recently freed from jail or prison. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom did just that, designating $50 million in March to buy hotel rooms or trailers to house the homeless and the formerly incarcerated.

The feds are not helping. HUD could take advantage of its waiver authority, newly granted by the CARES Act, to create consistent national standards for housing the formerly imprisoned in their owned or subsidized units. But the federal housing agency has not issued such recommendations or directives to date to the nation’s 3300 public housing authorities that it regulates.

There’s no easy solution here to a problem that was huge before COVID and is now even more complicated. The only solution is a reimagined criminal justice system (and a bold response to our growing lack of affordable rental housing among other things). Perhaps good sense and humanity will prevail post COVID—if we can make it so.

One small silver lining: Former prisoners have some important skills to share with the rest of us in these times. Says Andrew Hundley, director of the Louisiana Parole Project, “Our clients are in some sense better emotionally prepared [for distancing].” Other re-entry providers have been struck by clients’ resilience “as the free world unravels,” sharing their hard-gained knowledge of how to organize and pass the time away as well as emotional coping skills with less seasoned family members. We never know what experiences will come in handy.—Debby Warren