Pandemic strains post-prison life

North CarolinaCommunity
Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 10/30/2020, 4:01 PM
Edited: 03/11/2021, 10:22 AM
Written by: Emma Castleberry (DURHAM, N.C.) When Amanda Lankford was released from a North Carolina prison facility in July, getting a job in the midst of a pandemic was one of her first priorities. So, she immediately applied for a position at a convenience store. “They wouldn’t use my prison ID as a form of identification,” she said. “So, I made an appointment to get an ID made, and the appointments were so far out, it was going to be the beginning of September.” Waiting two months for acceptable identification wasn’t an option, so she started contacting North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices that were outside of town. Getting an ID at one of those locations would require her to find transportation, given that she didn’t have a driver’s license. But even outside of town, many DMV offices were closed. The ones that weren’t had significant delays. The challenges of reentry after prison are not new. But the pandemic has made life far more difficult for formerly incarcerated people who were already struggling. Even something as simple as getting a state ID — a vital part of reentry success — has been complicated by closures and limited hours at state motor vehicle offices nationwide. With the risk of spreading the virus, it’s harder to find a place to live, whether that’s in transitional housing or with a family member. Inmates aren’t tested for the virus before their release, and landlords are naturally reluctant to rent to people coming from a densely populated environment like a prison. Workers filed a record-breaking number of unemployment claims this year, making it more difficult for formerly incarcerated people to find work. Furthermore, the world has shifted to a virtual setting, but many people leaving prison lack access to computers or technology skills. This new approach has put a strain on their social lives and limited their access to resources that require online appointments or applications. “It’s hard enough coming home ordinarily,” said Drew Doll, a formerly incarcerated person and a coordinator with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. “Now you’re coming home in an environment where whatever opportunities there were are now limited. Resources that would normally be available are not.” In April, while much of the nation was shut down because of covid-19, Aggrey Manning was released from a prison in Spruce Pine, North Carolina after serving 12 years and five months. He turned 57 in September. “It was my first birthday with my family in 13 years,” said the father of four. Manning’s release was welcome, but so sudden that he didn’t have much time to prepare. And his reentry into society has been greatly complicated by the pandemic. “I didn’t know what to look for or where I was going,” he said. “I’m struggling. … I can’t get a job. There are no jobs. Places are going out of business. Nobody wants to hire you. Nobody even wants to be close to you. It’s tough.” A criminal conviction impacts one’s access to housing, employment, identification, transportation, healthcare and community resources like food stamps and welfare. “The way our reentry system works is that people are continually punished for the rest of their lives for something that they were told would only affect them for these years of incarceration,” said Kristen Powers, interim executive director of Benevolence Farm, a nonprofit residential program for formerly incarcerated women in Alamance County, North Carolina. DeAnna Hoskins is president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, a New York-based nonprofit with a mission of reducing the US correctional population. In 1998, she was sentenced to five years of community supervision, and although she never stepped foot into a prison, her life was changed by her conviction. Before the conviction, she was getting regular work with a temp service. That steady income, which she used to support herself and her children, disappeared, as the temp service could no longer send her to most jobs due to her conviction. “I walked into the courthouse one way,” Hoskins said, “and when I walked out, all these barriers were in place because I was now a convicted felon.” In response to the rapid spread of covid-19 in prisons and jails, correctional facilities have initiated the early release of thousands of inmates across the United States. A Ballotpedia analysis found that as of July, 21 states had released inmates from state prisons and counties in 12 states had released local inmates. Big If True spoke with five formerly incarcerated people who have been released since the pandemic began. All of them shared one clear sensation: great relief to be out of the crowded, highly contagious prison environment. In July, after three years in prison, Ronnie Roberts was released early in Raleigh, North Carolina to complete the last nine months of his sentence on house arrest. He’s currently living with his niece and finishing his sentence at her home. “I was worried about (covid-19) while I was in prison,” he said. “It’s real closed in. You can reach out and touch the person sleeping beside you. But since I’m out, I feel a lot safer. The more people they release, the more room they have to spread people out. Right now, it’s just so crowded in there.” Just days before his release, Manning’s mother died from complications with the coronavirus. Manning has also lost an uncle and aunt to the virus, as well as several of his friends in prison. “A lot of people shouldn’t have lost their lives like that,” Manning said. “A lot of them could’ve been saved.” Advocates have long been critical of prison overcrowding, and even before the pandemic, the spread of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, HIV and hepatitis in prisons was a public health concern. Prisons are known to be hot spots for the virus, and by June, the covid-19 case rate for inmates was 5.5 times higher than the average case rate in the US population, according to a report from the UCLA Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project and Johns Hopkins University researchers. California’s Avenal and San Quentin state prisons have both had more cases than any jail or prison in the country, with about 5,800 cases combined. But for people leaving these high-risk environments behind, what are they coming home to? Many reentry advocates identify access to housing as the foremost challenge faced by formerly incarcerated individuals. “Without a stable home or a place to go back to and a warm bed to sleep in at night, it’s really difficult to address any of the other challenges that they’re facing in their life,” said Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. Of course, the first step toward finding a place to live is being able to afford it. Most people who enter prison are already impoverished, and long stays in prison ruin a person’s credit because payment history is the No. 1 factor in determining your credit score. If an inmate leaves a credit card open and it accrues interest for late payments, or if they make no payments during their sentence, their credit score will drop. Even if an individual has financial resources in place, many property managers reject applicants with a criminal background. If someone leaves prison without the option of staying with a friend or family member and they have no money, the intended safety net is public housing. But in most states, drug convictions and sex offender registration bar these individuals from state and federal housing assistance. When Lankford was released from prison in July, she wanted to move into a women’s transitional housing facility located near her pregnant daughter in Asheville, North Carolina, but it wasn’t accepting new residents. “I called every Tuesday for three months trying to get a spot in that place, but because of the pandemic they weren’t taking anybody,” she said. About a week before her release, she found a spot at another facility, though it’s further from her daughter than she’d like. “I was very lucky to get into this house,” she said. Access to transitional housing options has been dramatically affected by the pandemic because of the possibility of a formerly incarcerated person bringing covid-19 into the community. “There is a concern in the housing community that individuals are coming out of a densely populated community,” said Rebecca Sauter, director and co-founder of Project Re-entry in North Carolina. “We have several ‘hot’ facilities. Individuals are not tested before their release. So the housing community is very cautious because of the environment they’re coming from, which is very crowded and could be contagious.” Housing can determine one’s ability to get out of — and stay out of — prison, as a permanent address is often a condition of parole. “State governments and (departments of correction) are recognizing the importance of housing people who are leaving prison, but their way of recognizing that is keeping people in prison if they don’t have a housing plan,” said Bertram. “States need to be working harder to make sure they can connect people with either a loved one who can pick them up, or with a hotel or a motel that could house them ideally for free right now.” Some cities and states are investing in this process. Dallas, New York state and California are paying for otherwise empty hotel rooms to be used as transitional housing for reentry. “There needs to be a lot more money coming in to cover things like this,” Bertram said. The feedback loop: Housing, employment and IDs In April, the unemployment rate jumped to about 15%, the highest since the Great Depression. The rate has since dropped to about 8% — still double its pre-pandemic levels. “Obviously the job market is not the best place to be right now,” said Powers, the head of Benevolence Farm. A lot of factors play into the difficulty of finding a job after prison. In 2018, the Prison Policy Initiative reported that more than half of formerly incarcerated people in America lack a traditional high school diploma, and lack of education leads to unemployment and low-paying jobs. The long employment gap on a resume from time in prison also leaves formerly incarcerated people less up-to-date on marketable skills. Another barrier is “the box,” the check box on job applications that asks applicants to disclose prior arrests or convictions. While 36 states and more than 150 cities and counties have “banned the box,” formerly incarcerated individuals still face this hurdle in many parts of the country. The challenge of finding employment and housing is compounded by difficulty accessing state-approved identification, as Lankford experienced with her two-month wait for a DMV appointment in Asheville. Again, Lankford got lucky. She landed a job with Goodwill, which often works with formerly incarcerated people and was willing to accept her prison ID. Months later, North Carolina DMV offices still face delays. Based on the agency’s online appointment system, as of last week, the earliest a person in Asheville could schedule a DMV appointment would be in late November – 35 miles away at an office in Marion. Other states have similar delays for appointments to get driver’s licenses. In some places in Florida, the wait is more than a month. Most offices for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety (DPS) are booking appointments out about two months from now, spokesperson Sarah Stewart said, adding that the state corrections department and DPS work with inmates to obtain a license before their release. Depending on the length of incarceration and one’s relationship to family, accessing original documents like a social security card or birth certificate, which are often needed to get a verifiable state ID, can be extremely difficult. State agencies that process driver’s licenses and social security offices have closed or limited hours during the pandemic. Many are also operating on an appointment-only basis, making this process even more frustrating. “A lot of the struggle now is navigating the resources that are no longer easily accessible to the public,” Sauter said. “Now you have to make appointments, and you often have to do certain things online prior to your appointment.” The struggle to access identification also highlights the need for a permanent address. “If you don’t have a residence, sometimes it can be hard to get different forms of ID,” Powers said. And if you don’t have identification, it can be hard to find employment, which can make it harder to find a residence. It’s a feedback loop that’s nearly impossible to escape — and one that’s been made dramatically more difficult as a result of the pandemic. The pandemic has increased our reliance on remote, technological tools like online applications and virtual job training, which leaves the formerly incarcerated population doubly excluded. “For someone who was incarcerated for 28 years and, first of all, doesn’t have access to a piece of technology to complete the application or the ability to navigate and fill it out online, that’s just not an option,” Powers said. It’s not just the job application process and jobs themselves that have gone virtual, but also support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, telehealth visits and therapy sessions, all of which are vital to reentry success. The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham coordinates support teams for people who are coming home from prison, with groups of three to five volunteers who spend a year or more engaging with them on a social level and meeting up to share food, talk, watch movies and play games. “Over the years, that has been really helpful,” said Doll, the coordinator for the coalition. “Once you’ve made the decision to change your life, you need a lot of support to help you do that, and that’s where these community support teams come in.” At the end of February, Doll had 22 active support teams operating in Durham. “By the end of August, we had 10 teams active,” he said, “because trying to do relational work on Zoom just doesn’t work. You can’t build relationships. That’s been the main challenge: maintaining connectivity when you can’t have those in-person experiences.” In September, the coalition purchased a pop-up tent and started hosting team meetings outdoors with social distancing measures. Since the in-person meetings began again, most of the former teams are operational again and five new support teams have formed. “You only have to look at the digital divide,” Bertram said. “Given the percentage of people who are in prison and leaving prison who come from poverty, the number who are Black and come from other racial minority groups, I think you can safely assume that a lot of them are going to be lacking access to a computer.” Poverty, race and incarceration are inherently connected, and people of color are more at risk of suffering the collateral consequences of incarceration. According to a 2018 report from The Sentencing Project, Black men are about six times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. They’re also more likely to receive lengthy sentences. “When employment applications or postings for apartments say, ‘No criminal backgrounds, no felony convictions,’ they are outright discriminating against Black and Latinos who are arrested and convicted at a higher rate than any other population,” said Hoskins, the head of JustLeadershipUSA. Advocates argue that providing resources for formerly incarcerated individuals during the pandemic would have a ripple effect that extends throughout local communities. A report by the Essie Justice Group, which included a survey of more than 2,200 women with incarcerated loved ones, revealed that nearly 70% of these women are the sole wage earner for their families. More than a third of those surveyed experienced homelessness or housing insecurity as a result of their loved one’s incarceration. “The impact of state and local governments not doing more goes beyond people who are being released and really impacts almost everyone that they know,” Bertram said. “States that invest in making sure that people leaving prison have the tools they need are going to see the benefits come back tenfold in terms of public health and safety.” Emma Castleberry is a writer and editor living in Asheville, North Carolina. See more of her work at Editor Mollie Bryant contributed reporting on driver’s license delays. Contact her at 405-990-0988 or Follow her on Twitter.


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