COVID-19 Intensifies Reentry For Better or Worse: Report

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Photo by Neil Conway via Flickr.

News of the dangerous conditions inside correctional facilities have flooded the headlines throughout the pandemic, but now that many incarcerated individuals have been released to slow the spread behind bars, some are finding reentry “overwhelming,” according to Florida State University’s Institute for Justice Research and Development (IJRD). 

The researchers, Carrie Pettus-Davis, Stephanie Kennedy and Faye Miller, all of the IJRD, collected data on over 200 individuals from three Phase 2 states: Indiana, Ohio and South Carolina during and after incarceration since the start of the pandemic. 

The researchers set out to empirically document the prisoners’ experiences and perspectives, while also highlighting how prisons attempted to contain the spread of COVID-19.

They found that the prisoners suffered through traumatic experiences while incarcerated during the pandemic, and now that they’re released back home, many have expressed that the stress is creating more reentry barriers — on top of the existing ones. 

First, many expressed fear about the coronavirus itself, whether it was getting sick and dying themselves, or intense stress and worry for their loved ones at home.  

“Prisons are not self-contained,” lead researcher of the study, Carrie Pettus-Davis, the founding director of IJRD, emphasized in the report. 

“Prison staff enter the prison community and return home to their residential community each day.”

In other words, the coronavirus can easily be brought inside the prison by workers and visiting members, and it can also be easily brought back into the community originating from someone infected inside the prison. 

It’s a dangerous cyclical cycle, the authors point out. 

“Because of the significant public health consequences associated with containing COVID-19 in correctional facilities, we felt it was important to immediately research and empirically document what is occurring,” Pettus-Davis continued. 

‘Anxiety and Disappointment’

Study participants told IJRD researchers about learning about COVID-19 behind bars, saying that they were “frustrated” by the lack of timely and “direct” communication from their carceral facilities. 

Some 54 percent of the inmates surveyed said they first learned about COVID-19 through watching TV, and only 26 percent said they learned through official announcements from correctional staff, according to the research. 

An anonymous inmate who is critical of how his facility handled the pandemic, quoted in the research said, “I was really anxious because there was a lot of negativity and rumors floating around and I wish there would have been more facts.” 

Many of the prisoners said that after they learned about the virus, and they started to see some of their fellow inmates get infected, the fear started to solidify. 

One inmate told the IJRD researchers, “I never seen [so] many tough men that afraid in my life.” 

They continued, saying, “I could see the fear in everybody’s eyes, to know that you can’t get away from it.” 

‘Reentry Was Difficult’

Then, after the coronavirus started to spread like wildfire behind bars, many inmates were allowed to return home. While many expressed joy about being out of isolation, the overwhelming consensus among those surveyed was that they were actually more “anxious” and “stressed” about their new situations. 

The traditional reentry barriers like employment, transportation and housing were all made more inaccessible, the former inmates said. 

One anonymous participant summed up their feelings, saying, “COVID has lowered my chances to get a job since people are now applying for the jobs that I would apply for and get … but they need jobs and don’t have a record.” 

Some participants also described struggling to access services, and that because of the pandemic, they couldn’t get back to living their lives and being with their loved ones. 

One former inmate told the researchers that they felt “devastation” and “disappointment” as they returned. 

Another former inmate said, “It’s just taking friends and family away from me, and made it harder for me to get the essential things that I need to adapt to society and re-enter society.”

A Silver Lining 

“Our interpretation of these data is that, in the words of one of our Community Advisory Board members, ‘COVID-19 intensifies reentry,’” — for better or for worse. 

While the stress about reentry is paramount, 89 percent of participants said they felt safer in their community than in prison — and that, for many surveyed, is more important than anything. 

Many cited the happiness they feel to be able to visit family for the first time, many admitting to participating in socially-distanced family events to make up for lost time.

Others discussed the joy they feel to be living with family and their children again.

One former inmate is quoted saying that the pandemic has “actually brought my family closer together.”


Overall, the IJRD researchers, with the help of their Community Advisory Board, stressed the need to help former prisoners feel safe and secure as they adjust to their new life. 

They recommend that individuals receive at least a 30-day supply of prescribed medication, as well as test everyone for COVID-19 before they return to their homes. As a general rule, they also recommend that everyone have access to safe and stable housing, a phone, and Wi-Fi access. 

“This is a crisis period for many of us; however, those who are exiting incarceration have been distanced even more from the basic resources in life needed for survival including jobs, shelter, ID, food, transportation, safety and emotional support,” one Community Advisory Board member wrote. 

They concluded, “If we don’t do anything to change policy, people’s lives don’t change.” 

Carrie Pettus-Davis, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Florida State University (FSU) and Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Justice Research and Development (IJRD), and Principal Researcher of the 5- Key Model trial.

Stephanie Kennedy, Ph.D., is Director of Research Dissemination at IJRD.

Faye Miller is an MPP Research and Assessment Specialist at IJRD. 

The full study can be accessed here. 

Additional Reading: How to Ensure Safe, Effective Release and Reentry in the Time of Coronavirus

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