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May 12, 2020

"Helping People Transition from Incarceration to Society During a Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Sterling Johnson and Leo Beletsky.  Here is part of its executive summary:

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

As COVID-19 is devastating correctional institutions and their surrounding communities, decarceration measures are finally gathering momentum.  Efforts to decarcerate must always include increased support for people through the reentry process.  In the age of COVID-19, the health and human rights imperative for safe reentry has never been more urgent.

May 12, 2020 at 02:59 PM | Permalink


I was released from prison on April 23rd of this year. I am a 63-year old, disabled female. I was released to home confinement. When I got home, I was confined to the house. I was unable to go to social services, to the social security office, to the dmv to get my replacement driver's license. I am not able to attend church services, despite the fact that my church is having services.

I was informed by Social Security that my Medicare Part B had been discontinued. I was also told that since I still have Part A, that Medicaid will not cover my doctor's visits. I am disabled and now have no way to pay to go to the doctor.

I came home hoping to continue working on my master's degree, but my computers are all outdated. My son gave me an older iPhone to use, for which I am extremely grateful. I am blessed along those lines. He also added me to his cell phone account.

While in prison, I lost three crowns, due to falls. I refused to let them pull the teeth, but now have to try and figure a way to get the crowns replaced.

Prison did nothing to prepare me for what I was facing when I came out. I am lucky since I have some education, but my heart goes out to those who are leaving without even rudimentary computer skills. How can they function in the world?

Perhaps this is the time to examine what the re-entry program is really accomplishing in the prisons and begin to make changes.

Posted by: Retta Sundblad | May 12, 2020 10:24:19 PM

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