Report Urges Caution in Releasing Prisoners During Pandemic

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prison mentee

Participant in re-entry mentoring program at Louisiana’s Angola Prison. (Photo by Clark Giles/courtesy Equal Justice Initiative)

A “scattershot” approach to releasing prisoners early due to COVID-19, one devoid of necessary support in housing, employment, and health care, could “diminish prospects for succeeding in the community and may undermine future criminal justice reform efforts,” according to a New York University (NYU) report.

“Many states will need to consider early release to reduce the density of their prison populations to lower the risk of COVID-19 spread,” said the report, prepared by NYU’s Litmus Program at the Marron Institute of Urban Management.

Yet “prisoners who are released will face unprecedented challenges.”

The report, “Recommendations for Rapid Release and Reentry During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” grew out of research by the Litmus program into early release from prison prior to COVID-19.

In December 2019, the team completed a three-year pilot project (called Graduated Reintegration) that entailed releasing prisoners six months prior to their earned-release date, paired with substantial community supports, in collaboration with the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Since early March 2020, Litmus has been working with justice agencies nationwide to learn how corrections (jails and prisons) and community corrections (probation and parole) are responding to COVID-19.

Over a four-week period, the team hosted five protocol-sharing sessions, including over 100 criminal justice system practitioners, from over 20 states.

Just in the area of housing, prisoners released early could face a daunting reality, the report said.

“Housing options outside of releasees’ families and friends will be scarce,” according to the study authors. “Shelters are downsizing population, moving residents to other facilities; communal housing sites and residential programs are not accepting new residents.”

Access to non-critical healthcare may be delayed. And access to substance use and mental health treatment may change as residential facilities face outbreaks and might have to limit or stop admissions.

“Access to basic needs, already a struggle for this population, will be further complicated. Releasees and their families are under additional stress.”

The report pointed out that “historically, reentry assistance has been meager. A 2019 review of release policies in all 50 states found that 45 provided financial assistance, commonly referred to as “gate money.”

“California and Colorado were the most generous, providing reentrants with $200 and $100, respectively, at the time of release, while reentrants in Alabama and Louisiana would customarily release with as little as $10 or $20—and New Hampshire, perhaps no money at all.”

Study authors urged agencies  to “rethink assistance to releasees as they transition to the community during the pandemic, both pre- and post-release.”

When preparing for scheduled and early releases, agencies should analyze the options available to them to better support release and “be prepared for staff shortages due to increased requests for sick leave, reinforcing the need for contingency planning to identify qualified staff to step in to provide essential services and release programming.”

“Careful development of criteria, policy, and processes to select eligible participants for early release is essential to ensuring that eligibility criteria are transparent and fair and to managing public perception and safety concerns… In a time of heightened anxiety for incarcerated populations and their families, a clear communication plan keeps all stakeholders informed.”

Employment is a stabilizing factor for justice-involved persons, but as the report emphasized, “the pandemic has greatly increased unemployment.”

“Agencies should suspend employment requirements for releasees for the time being. To keep releasees engaged and to improve their employment prospects when opportunities return, agencies should link them to online training or education sites.”

For detailed recommendations on how to best support early release and to read the full report, go here.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report

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