COVID presents fresh challenges for prisoners re-entering society, but also new opportunities
With thousands of Connecticut inmates re-entering society during the coronavirus pandemic, organizations that help steer those returning citizens to housing or employment – crucial factors in preventing recidivism – are shifting into new territory to provide aid.
The state’s incarcerated population reached historic lows during COVID-19. As of Sept. 1, there were 9,545 people behind bars, a 23% decrease from March 1.
Connecticut’s prison population peaked at 19,894 people in February 2008. During the pandemic, it dropped to half that amount, a benchmark for national groups like #Cut50, which push for states to halve the number of people behind bars.
For the last seven months, social distancing and other safety measures have challenged the way advocates typically connect returning citizens with services that are critical to their success. Gone are the bustling job fairs and in-classroom learning sessions that were regarded as key measures in helping those people find places to live and work.
To cope with the new normal, advocates are acquiring more funds to pay for security deposits and other rental assistance. Job fairs have gone virtual, along with programs that teach resume writing and interview skills. And as the definition of “essential worker” has changed, so has the analysis of what jobs are best suited to people recently released from prison.
While the pandemic has posed extraordinary obstacles, some advocates say their new methods could continue in a post-COVID-19 world. Groups that previously hadn’t worked together are collaborating, and additional money has been directed toward housing and employment efforts.
“It’s been a crazy time, but some positive things have come out of this, like stronger collaborations and just making sure that folks who are discharged are not homeless,” said Sue Gunderman, interim director of re-entry services for the city of Hartford. “Where do we go from here and how can we best provide opportunities for these individuals who need a second chance? We’re still in the investigative part of that.”
Employment efforts turn digital
Just weeks after she was released from prison, Tara Buchholz found herself searching for a steady job in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
Buchholz was released in February after serving three years on charges of theft and walking away from a halfway house. She sent resumes out in March, even as businesses closed down and hundreds of thousands of people across the state lost their jobs.
“I was anxiety ridden, for sure. For a while there, nobody was hiring,” she recalled. “And what was out there – I certainly didn’t have the qualifications for, and having my felony background did not help me at all.”
Buchholz joined a program through a Bridgeport nonprofit that helps returning citizens prepare to re-enter the workforce. The initiative – run by The Workplace Inc. – teaches participants interview techniques and time management, among other skills, and connects them with employers.
Buchholz started working full-time as a quality assurance technician for Something Sweet, a bakery company in New Haven, last spring while completing The Workplace’s five-week program. Upon graduation, the company offered her a permanent spot.
“I’m so grateful,” she said. “It’s a relief just knowing I have a stable job that is helping me to move on with my life and putting me in good standing with society.”
Thousands of people who are released from prison in Connecticut every year rely on these programs to help them prepare for and secure employment. Without steady work, formerly incarcerated people are more likely to reoffend.
But as the pandemic hit, leaders of these efforts had to quickly shift gears. The Workplace handed out laptops to participants and brought its program – which teaches time management and interview skills, among other things – online.
“We had to really transform our system,” said Joseph Carbone, president and CEO of The Workplace. “Obviously, you can’t have any classroom activity.” Participants were mostly adept at the technology, he said, and job placements have continued during the pandemic.
Part of navigating the volatile job market involves looking for fields that still are hiring. People in the program have gone on to work in automotive repair, the food service industry, construction, shipping services and medical offices, among other areas.
The pandemic’s massive toll on the workforce caused some setbacks, however. Twelve participants who had found jobs in the hospitality sector lost them as businesses closed and people stayed home. A few have gone back to work as the companies reopened, and The Workplace has connected others with new employment.
“We’re never going to stop working,” Carbone said. Participants “have a person here who every step of the way will know what you’re doing, someone you can get to when you need to discuss your problem.”
Leaders of other programs have also moved classes and other services online – and via phone.
At re-entry centers across the state – stationed in many urban centers – staff have been connecting returning citizens with resources primarily by phone, though some socially distant appointments have continued. In Hartford, Gunderman said the center was closed to walk-ins for months, but its staff still met with end-of-sentence people who were dropped off near city hall.
Career services through Goodwill and other nonprofits that the re-entry center partners with have gone virtual, she said. Several organizations have secured funding to purchase smartphones (along with the minutes needed to use them) and other equipment for those who are newly released and seeking employment.
Still, the pandemic has been difficult for people without digital skills. For inmates coming out of long sentences, the leap to new technology can be more onerous.
“This ‘new normal’ has really impacted people trying to find employment, trying to get connected to support,” Gunderman said. “And if the individual doesn’t have really good computer skills or knowledge of how to access things, it’s an even greater challenge.”
Rob Hebert, senior vice president for Career Resources, a workforce development agency in Bridgeport, said his organization had to pause employment efforts at the height of the pandemic. Job interviews resumed recently, though people in the program are only going out for scheduled meetings, rather than to drop off resumes as they did before COVID-19. The application process has moved online.
Hebert also oversees business services for the American Job Center in Connecticut, which arranges employment fairs for people with criminal records. Fairs that had been scheduled in Waterbury, Norwalk and Bridgeport last spring were held via Zoom this year. The job center also hosted virtual “drop-in” sessions, where people could get their resumes critiqued, and “employer spotlight” videos with business owners. In the videos, employers talked about the culture of their companies and opportunities for advancement.
“We’ve just tried to help however we could, because this affected everybody,” Hebert said.
More funding for housing
Finding housing is always hard for people returning from prison, but it’s gotten more difficult during the pandemic. Shelters and transitional housing programs aren’t accepting new intakes because of the virus, and landlords are often hesitant to rent to people who have been convicted of a crime. In some cases, relatives of returning citizens are struggling with lost wages.
“Family members are less willing to take folks in, or have their own challenges – not to mention many family members are facing the potential loss of housing themselves,” said Richard Cho, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.
Since the onset of COVID-19, advocates for the homeless have acquired $2.1 million in federal, state and philanthropic funds to help people leaving prison or jail find a place to live. The money helps prospective renters pay security deposits and apply for apartments, and helps tenants pay their rent by providing payments directly to landlords on their behalf.
“It addresses what has been a major driver of homelessness, which are people being discharged from corrections without any form of housing assistance,” said Cho.
Landlords may still be reticent to rent to people with criminal convictions, even if prospective tenants have the money to pay rent. John Souza, president of the Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners, said the eviction moratorium makes landlords more wary of taking a risk on a tenant with a lengthy criminal record.
“Landlords are being extra careful who we rent to,” he said. “If you’ve got an empty unit, you’re raising your standards.”
Cho said this change is an unintended consequence of an eviction moratorium without rent relief. “Landlords are saying they aren’t willing to take chances on people who have a shakier credit history or don’t have a reliable income,” he said. “If you have a criminal record and you’re just coming out of prison, you’re just at the bottom of their list.”
The additional public and private funds are helping people who otherwise would have nowhere to go once they’re out of prison or jail. Each month the Department of Correction discharges around 60 people to homelessness.
The stepped-up effort could provide a blueprint for advocates to follow in the future, should more funding be made available after the pandemic.
Cho suggested that any money the state saves by closing a correctional facility, as recently intimated by the newly nominated Department of Correction commissioner, could be reinvested in housing supports, to help those caught in a revolving door of arrest, incarceration and discharge from jail. Other states that have downsized their prison populations faced pressure to reopen correctional facilities once that population swelled again. Part of the solution, Cho said, is to invest in community supports that make people less likely to wind up in the criminal justice system.
“We’re almost making it a requirement, that if the state is going to incarcerate someone, they’re going to set aside the resources to make sure that person is set up for success upon leaving that prison facility,” he said.
Such a reinvestment could cut down on racial disparities that persist in the prison system. White people make up 80% of the state population overall but around one-quarter of those behind bars. Black people make up about 45% of those in correctional facilities, but only about 12% of residents statewide.
Racial disparities have gotten worse during the pandemic. The proportion of Black and Hispanic people among the incarcerated population rose almost two percentage points between March 1 and Sept. 1, even as the population dropped overall.
Advocates contend this is reflective of racial inequities in incarcerated people’s access to housing opportunities, which make them less likely to be approved for discretionary release by the DOC. Officials released data from March showing that white inmates accounted for a disproportionate share of those sent home under the DOC’s discretion. Melvin Medina, public policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Connecticut, said the department’s ostensibly race-neutral policy didn’t take into account Black and Latino inmates’ “more complicated housing relationships” than white inmates tend to have, making minorities less likely to be sent home before the end of their sentence.
“We need to take a policy orientation that is trying to solve the issue of racial disparities in our system, rather than ignoring it,” said Medina.
Medina said existing inequities in housing and employment opportunities for incarcerated people of color exacerbate the steep racial disparities. The state is at a “critical juncture,” he said, where it can refashion the purpose of its corrections system and provide more comprehensive services for its reduced incarcerated population.
“Be it through direct rent payments, or assistance, and security deposits,” Medina said, “or the ability for someone to even use the DOC as a as a reference for a future job, [these] are critical policies that can solve this issue of ensuring that when people are released, they’re released into an embracing community where they can thrive.”
A home, not a house
Buchholz, the job seeker who landed a position amid the pandemic, had her own struggles with housing.
She began looking for a place to live while she was still locked up, a difficult endeavor because she had to find a location that complied with the conditions of her parole.
She spotted a flyer for Judy’s Place, a sober house in New Haven for women in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
“When you get out of prison … finding a place to go, especially for women, is difficult,” Buchholz said.
In order to release Buchholz on parole, authorities wanted her to post three months’ rent at the sober house. She didn’t have the money. Her daughter wound up paying the first six weeks of rent, and signed paperwork pledging to cover another six if Buchholz couldn’t find work.
Buchholz has made much progress in the seven months since she moved to Judy’s Place. She’s moved to a room on the second floor, where she isn’t bound by a curfew or required to participate in otherwise mandatory Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“It just shows growth,” Buchholz said, “and it shows I have consistently grown in my recovery, grown in my path to be clean and sober.”
She’s made the space her own, potting house plants and putting them on windowsills and in the kitchen. Pictures of her family line her room.
Buchholz stressed that it was important for her to have a home – not just a house – when she got out of prison. She needed stability as she put her life back together.
“When everything else in the world is so chaotic … regardless of how strong you’ve become, it’s still a demon that’s hard to fight,” she said. “When you’re somewhere where you’re supported and you’re understood … it’s amazing how much you can grow.”
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