Across the country thousands of people are being released from prisons and jails, with a majority from jails, due to policies enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but when these people return home they are often no safer than the place they were confined to.
As a result of the racial disparities in incarceration, a significant number of those released will be men and women of color from hotspot communities that are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. The high death rate for blacks and Latinos and the near economic collapse of vulnerable communities puts returning people at great risk.
As a teacher who regularly interacts with incarcerated people and those returning, I have seen up close the toll confinement and reentry takes. These men and women tell me about the many barriers to success after going home. As the country navigates the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on those incarcerated, maintaining “public safety” and disseminating “justice” should not come at the expense of the lives of the people we are trying to help. Advocating for their release is just the first of many steps needed to ensure their safety, health and prosperity.
The conditions of jails and prisons and how they exacerbate the spread of the pandemic are well documented. In 2019, the U.S. had an incarcerated population of 2.3 million people, with over 600,000 in local jails without a conviction. As incarceration drastically increased over the last few decades, jails and prisons became overcrowded and ill-equipped to handle the health needs of the people in their care. Incarcerated people are often denied basic hygiene products or cleaning supplies, have limited access to mental health treatment and the physical health care they desperately need. Recently, a Miami court ruled that jails could not be forced to provide soap, masks or cleaning supplies to people housed during the pandemic.
But, even before this pandemic ignited a national concern for the health and safety of incarcerated people, there were often insurmountable obstacles facing those reentering and very little support from the justice system to overcome those obstacles. People returning from jail and prison had to figure out how to secure their basic needs while also learning new technologies for transportation, communication and job searches. They struggled to find employment and housing, were still prisoners to the fines and fees associated with parole and had to navigate byzantine administrative systems just to secure necessary documents.
Over the last few weeks, in response to concerns about COVID-19 spread in jails and prisons, some states have started to release people, mainly those eligible for compassionate release, “parole violators,” or those charged or convicted with low level offenses. Cook County, Illinois decreased their jail population by almost 25 percent in order to slow the spread of the virus, while San Francisco reduced their jail population by 30 percent.
This increase in releases helps slow the spread but it does not solve the challenges of reentry. Securing employment is near impossible given the economic decline and stay at home orders. The affordable housing crisis persists, as do restrictions on public housing for people with criminal records. Food insecurity and lack of access to proper health care are heightened. Social services do not have the capacity or funding to provide people with the adequate help and services they need to stay healthy and survive outside of prison. Without policies and resources in place to assist people as they return home, these men and women are being tossed from a pandemic frying pan right into the fire.
In this time of great change, we have the will and the opportunity to reshape the criminal justice system into one that serves the people it touches; that picks them up instead of leaving them in a hole with no way out. Public agencies, businesses and others must ease the burdens placed on formerly incarcerated people. States should direct social services to returning individuals who need mental health care, education, employment, food and housing.
Additionally, protocols must be put in place to increase health care access, testing and social services in the low-income communities of color to which people are returning. These neighborhoods are hot spots for the virus due to systemic failures including racial disparities in testing and treatment, over policing and lack of access to proper health care.
Being released is a great first step, a lasting, positive effect of COVID-19 would be moving away from a punishment focused system and turning towards one that centers on equity, wellness and dignity. A focus on those returning from prison and jail is vital for both their own success and the success of their communities.
ShanaKay Salmon is the creative associate for the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College. Follow the IIP on twitter at @IIP_JohnJay.