Release During COVID-19 ‘Almost Like Being Incarcerated Again’

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COVID-19 has made the already difficult hurdles of navigating life after incarceration almost insurmountable, returning citizens and prisoner advocates told a webinar Wednesday.

The webinar, organized by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College, also included elected local officials and representatives of community services in New York who called for greater attention to the needs of inmates released during the pandemic.

“There are [already] so many barriers to people in the re-entry process,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams. “It’s like their sentence continues forever, and they are continuously punished.”

Jumaane Williams

Ryan Lawes, one of the formerly incarcerated panelists, said it has been “impossible” to find employment since he was released in January.

Even more troubling, the closure of Department of Motor Vehicle offices around the city prevented many ex-inmates from obtaining much-needed identification, Lawes added.

By March, thousands of businesses and government offices had shut down in New York City, identified early as the epicenter of the health crisis in the U.S.

But, even with jobs hard to find for everyone, former inmates faced social and economic challenges that put them at a special disadvantage, the webinar was told.

Sharon Richardson, founder and executive director of Re-Entry Rocks, a culinary internship program for recently released females, said many of her clients have been struggling to pay rent, buy food, and access mental health services.

“It’s almost like being incarcerated again,” she said.

Adding to the challenges, many inmates were unable to get tested for the infection before release, said Sam Rivera, executive director of the Washington Heights Corner Project.

This, in turn, has made volunteer organizations and shelters hesitant to accept them.

Elizabeth Gaynes, president and CEO of the Osborne Association, which conducts programs to help individuals and families returning from prison, noted that many of the individuals her organization works with have mental health issues.

But, the shelter-in-place restrictions imposed during the pandemic have made it difficult for family members to participate in counseling.

Elizabeth Gaynes

The panelists described several volunteer organizations across New York City that have adapted remarkably to COVID-19.

For example, Richardson’s Re-Entry Rocks began donating food to ex-inmates and organized a weekly discussion group for 12 recently released women. Participants also received free iPads.

Gaynes’ Osborne Association created a re-entry hotline and a remote drug treatment program. The organization also distributed hundreds of smartphones to ex-inmates, so they could stay in contact with their parole officers and keep abreast of new technology.

Gaynes even hosted virtual proms and graduations for her younger clients.

When asked what lessons could be learned from COVID-19 and other epidemics on re-entry, Gaynes said that testing is imperative for current and former inmates.

She noted that state governments responded to the spread of tuberculosis in prisons by increasing testing. Consequently, she added, “there is virtually no TB in prison now.”

Rivera pointed out that poor medical care in prisons caused many inmates to die during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He suggested that greater access to health services for current and recently released inmates could help reduce further infection.

Communication between city and state agencies regarding the release of certain inmates must be quicker and clearer, he added.

Williams, who served as a New York City council member, sponsored the Fair Chance Act of 2015 that gives bonuses to municipal employers who hire members of the re-entry population. Citing instances in which employers received bonuses but failed to hire ex-inmates, Williams and Rivera agreed that the law should be better enforced.

Increased enforcement would help recently released individuals get jobs, even when hiring slows—as it has during the pandemic.

The panelists also suggested that counseling, housing, and educational opportunities should be made more available to individuals returning from prison, especially during an outbreak.

‘Terrible’ Responses From Government

Throughout the webinar, the panelists leveled sharp criticism against local and state governments for their responses to the pandemic.

Williams called their responses “terrible,” recalling that his office tried to get all inmates in New York City with one year left of their sentences released, “but we couldn’t even do that.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo “has not granted clemencies nor medical paroles,” Gaynes observed, noting that despite a decision to release people convicted of nonviolent crimes 90 days early, only a “small number” were actually released.

“Not one executive order has added to the ability to release more people,” she said.

Reflecting on his prison and re-entry experiences, Lawes declared, “New York State is not a progressive state…We are never the first to do anything.”

The panelists also took time to reflect on the ongoing nationwide protests and calls for systemic reform. Williams appreciated that “people are tuning in now more than ever.”

He agreed with protesters that not every American has the same opportunity and that “we must reshape public safety.”

He continued: “If you equate policing with public safety, you will have problems, especially in black and brown communities.”

Echoing demonstrators’ calls to defund the police, Rivera and Richardson added that funding for law enforcement agencies should be diverted to social services in under-served communities.

“We must use this time period when people are listening,” Williams concluded.

More of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution’s webinars and publications can be found here.

Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern.

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