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For People Released Due to COVID-19, a Different World Awaits

Katelyn Newman - April 15, 2020

On March 30, Dennis McLees swapped his stint in a correctional facility for quarantine in his daughter Ashley Stack's home, hunkering down with her, his son-in-law and his 15-month-old grandson during the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to an early release.

"I'm just glad to get out – we were on lockdown my last three weeks," says McLees, 57.

McLees was imprisoned several months ago for a nonviolent drug possession charge, but was let out early on parole from the Big Muddy River Correctional Center in Ina, Illinois, due to concerns about the virus entering the facility. A liver cancer survivor who had a transplant in 2017 and now needs a new kidney, McLees is potentially at risk for severe illness caused by the coronavirus. He says he was released in part for health concerns, in part thanks to good behavior credit from a previous time behind bars, and as a result of his daughter's persistence.

"My daughter actually worked for me out here and got in touch with the governor," McLees says. "I really benefited from having Ashley on the outside when other people ... don't have family that either cares or have family" at all.

As the pandemic rages on in the U.S., with approximately 600,000 cases and more than 26,000 deaths as of Wednesday, advocacy groups, public health experts and lawmakers have called on government officials to consider the early release of inmates – particularly nonviolent offenders, the elderly, the disabled and those who are ill or may have compromised immune systems. A key goal: free up space to prevent the virus from spreading like a wildfire in crowded jails and prisons where social distancing is difficult and stay-at-home orders a moot point.

"This is an urgent time, and everybody deserves to be able to protect themselves," says Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project in Los Angeles, a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women rejoin society.

But as officials grapple with who to release, how many at a time and into what type of situation, the inmates themselves are reentering a society that in many ways has been completely altered. McLees, for example, entered Big Muddy in January, but is now back in a world where coronavirus concerns and restrictions dominate everyday life.

"I think he's having a hard time grasping the fact that we have to order groceries and we can't just run out of the house and pick things up, that it's not that easy," says Stack, his daughter.

"It's just like still being in my cell, they're just bringing the groceries to me, and it's better food," McLees jokes.

Meanwhile, organizations built to help prisoners reenter society are now trying to do so from afar.

"We are providing the bulk of our services virtually, by phone and video meetings, but there are some things that we're not able to do right now because of access to correctional facilities in particular," says Susan Gottesfeld, executive vice president and chief program officer at The Osborne Association in New York. "We are working to try to provide as much as we can, but it's challenging and limited."

At the end of March, the Empire State announced the release of up to 1,100 low-level parole violators. In New York City specifically, Gottesfeld says emergency housing via the Emergency Management and Homeless Services departments is being provided for people released who need to be isolated due to possible infection.

Still, housing is only one factor at play. Those who need to enroll in Medicaid, for example, need to do so remotely due to office closures, she says, and finding employment at a time of rapid unemployment can be difficult.

"Part of what we're doing as an organization and with others is cataloguing what services are up and running in which boroughs and neighborhoods so that when people call our hotline, we can direct them to those available resources," Gottesfeld says.

The Osborne Association's substance use disorder program, as well as individual counseling programs, are all running on the same schedules with people joining virtually, Gottesfeld says, though a new challenge surrounds the "technological capacity of constituents: How tech-savvy are they, and do they have the devices?"

"For those with long, recent periods of incarceration, they're pretty far behind on their ability to use technology, so we're having to provide extra support to folks to get them connected virtually," Gottesfeld says.

More than 700 prisoners like McLees had been released in Illinois as of April 10 due to concerns surrounding the virus, according to data from the state's Department of Corrections. Yet Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, says some may be returning to a world that's "functionally uninhabitable right now."

"People are stuck where they are, so I think it probably makes reentry much more emotionally difficult than it has been," Soble says, with challenges including finding work and housing when some traditional avenues, such as halfway houses, aren't accepting new tenants. Her advocacy organization has also had to stop its in-person prison visits with clients, which has been "a huge obstacle to providing services."

"On the flip side, there's been a really tremendous outpouring of support from family members and community members who want to take their loved ones into their home, if only the (Department of Corrections) would release them," she says.

In California, Burton says the housing services her organization provides are still operating as an essential business, and the legal and leadership development aid it offers former inmates is being provided through telecommunication. Burton says they've been fortunate to have a donor who wants to help them provide more housing in light of the release of hundreds of prisoners, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently moved to release 3,500 inmates from a prison system that for years has struggled with overcrowding.

But mass releases could be overwhelming for surrounding communities as well as for the organizations that are trying to help these ex-inmates readjust to society, says Jon Ponder, founder and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas-based organization Hope for Prisoners.

Such moves could lead to a surge in demand for social services ranging from employment, when "no one's hiring right now," to housing and food stamps, Ponder says.

"What kind of backlog are we looking at there for them?" he says. "We work with hundreds of men and women over the course of a year, and I'm not sure if there is a community across our country that during this time (has) an infrastructure to help them to safely transition."

Ponder, who's been in and out of prison since he was 12 years old with charges ranging from assault and battery to robbery, says he supports the push to release prisoners, but only if conducted in a methodical way that ensures those released can return to a stable environment.

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