COVID-19 and Reentry

By Antonella Portugal

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand throughout the states, the release of vulnerable and high-risk individuals from jail and prison systems becomes more and more urgent. Thirty-three states have since made strategic moves to release individuals being held pre-trial, those scheduled for release in the near future, and the elderly or those with high-risk health issues.

In welcoming formerly incarcerated adults and youth back into their communities during these difficult times, we also need to focus on effective reentry supports as they return home. Due to racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system — which we are seeing play out in COVID-19’s disproportionate impact in communities of color — not all individuals who have been released are returning to resources that would allow them to stay safe in their communities. Many are coming home to dire situations — often to areas that are not accessible for social distancing or prepared for other public health recommendations.

The lack of action taken by most states to protect vulnerable returning citizens during this pandemic highlights the importance of comprehensive reentry. Under different circumstances, these efforts should be focused around programs that have been proven to work. Access to secure housing, transportation, and food, as well as participation in education, job training, and behavioral health support programs are critical for community reentry. These services, while difficult to provide during a pandemic, should not be neglected; however, it is imperative that we shift the focus on the public health and health care services.

The public health field has identified these core components of social determinants of health: socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood and physical environment, employment and social support networks, as well as access to health care. Unfortunately, these risk factors are widespread among the incarcerated population. It is imperative that reentry plans address these factors. With access to education and employment support especially limited at this time when most industries are shut down, support related to housing and healthcare is crucial. Addressing social determinants of health is critical for reducing health disparities rooted in social and economic disadvantages, as well as improving overall health outcomes during COVID-19. Reentry services that do not take into consideration these factors during this crisis will be ineffective and may potentially cost lives.

As the pandemic continues, our federal government’s response has also failed to take this significantly vulnerable population into consideration. The CARES Act does not provide any reentry related support for returning citizens.

While states continue to consider policies that may protect individuals who are currently incarcerated from COVID-19, action to support those released has been lagged behind. Only a few states include returning citizens in their response plans, and even then returning citizens are not the focus of initiatives. For example, in Project Roomkey in California, returning citizens that face homelessness included, but they are grouped into larger projects meant to serve the broader homeless population. Similar work is being carried out in Connecticut and New York, but this is a drop in the bucket of work that must be done nationwide. The limited housing opportunities offered merely provide isolated settings for people who have tested positive, been exposed, or are at high risk. It is crucial to ensure that all returning citizens, including people in transitional housing, also have access to behavioral health support and health care services.

What is important for reentry, now more than ever, is a wrap-around public health approach. Before this pandemic, social determinants of health already disproportionately affected people of color. Because having just one of these risk factors can contribute to having others, the overall risk of catching COVID-19 is compounded. Under the current situation, this has produced significant racial disparities within the 60,057 deaths and 1,031,659 cases reported by the CDC across the country.

As of May 1st, most states have reported the racial breakdowns of cases and deaths due to COVID-19. These stark state-wide trends can be assumed in most communities across America.

Due to related disparities within the criminal justice system, the population of returning citizens has a similar racial and socioeconomic make-up to the communities they will be returning to, which are those hardest hit by COVID-19. These data show that in addition to COVID-19 being a public health crisis, it is a racial justice crisis as well. As cities become hotspots of infection, and individuals are released without proper reentry support, public health must be prioritized. In releasing individuals from facilities that lack the resources to deal with an outbreak, reentry support is essential to prevent further spread within communities that have long been subject to negative health outcomes. Public health and public safety officials must work together to ensure that both returning citizens and the communities to which they return have the necessary support and resources.

Antonella is a Spring 2020 intern at the Justice Policy Institute.

Reducing society’s reliance on incarceration and the justice system. We inform policymakers, advocates and the media about fair and effective justice reforms.

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