As COVID19 began to spread across the country and the death toll mounted, it became apparent the elderly and minorities were at the very top of this deadly hit list. Unfortunately, the men and women inside of our prisons also found themselves sitting in the center of this pandemic with little that could be done but wait for society to understand the scope and gravity of what was about to strike. The health risks for those living in the confined spaces of a cell block, little or no possibility of social distancing, few sanitary health tools and personal protection, and even less medical testing and treatment available, were about to go viral, literally. The death toll mounted and COVID19 began to spread swiftly and indiscriminately, infecting staff and residents in correctional facilities. The alarms were finally pulled, some of the lucky were methodically released to overcrowded and locked down halfway houses, family, or shelters. This is what they did NOT hear when they arrived home.
#1 “Welcome Home”. You have waited weeks, days, years, or even decades and now that you have been discharged there are two simple words that you have waited to hear. These words reflect the end of one journey and the beginning of a new chapter in your life. As David Brooks proclaims, your “second mountain.” Those with money and some remaining influence in society able to secure legal counsel to file a petition for early release are sent home. Fortunate others have been blessed with time as they are nearing the end of their sentence, are elderly and infirmed, or serving time for something that barely warranted their detention in the first place, now receive the gift of freedom. The system works slowly and methodically for all others who just want to survive the plague running uncontrollably in a system built without regard for social distancing, PPE or sanitizing agents, or even basic healthcare supports. Coming home is bitter- sweet as family members, servicing agencies, and the community remain wary of the possibility of virus transmission and spread. As men and women leave their prison cells and exit those prison walls those two words remain elusive and rarely uttered, welcome home.
#2 “We were prepared for this and here’s how we can help.” In a system of 2.2 million incarcerated people, it’s hard to imagine that the threat of a disease was never planned for, considered, or contemplated. The spread of COVID19 ravages our country in weeks, causes death and illness not seen before in recent history. It is not until our prison staff, administrators, and inmates begin to die that the muffled warning alarms go off. There is little medical treatment available, and few if any ventilators that can keep those inflicted inside our prisons alive. We move forward and finally begin to grant relief, but are we prepared for what is about to happen next. As more and more people are released from prison the fear that those released, who have been living in a virtual COVID laboratory, are now agents spreading this virus back in their communities, strikes home. We send people back to their families, shelters, halfway homes, and sometimes the streets. We provide little to help people survive, let alone thrive and start over. Food, clothing, permanent shelter, transportation, employment, and basic healthcare seem to be afterthoughts and not readily available. We were never truly prepared for what was next to come, and now men and women find themselves in shelters and homes far more incarcerated than ever before and wondering if their long-desired exit was premature.
#3 “The future ahead is bright, and you will have an easy road ahead.” You have now paid the price for the choices you have made in the past. The time served in prison now just a memory, will be your life sentence as you being to navigate your second, third, or fourth mountain. Society as we once knew it has changed. Millions out of work will now be competing for jobs, career opportunities, and ways to make a living. As a citizen with a criminal history, you will be forced to relive the past with each job application, every interview, and even as you navigate government relief benefits and aid being given freely without question to all others. Simple things that were necessary for employment like obtaining proper identification are not possible as nonessential services and government offices remain closed. Finding housing, transportation, clothing, food support, and employment are at the very top of your list, but mandated closures, social distancing norms, and the economic devastation to our society will take precedent. Prior to COVID19 the world continued to advance and evolve with technology moving at warp speed. Education and skill development with occupational credentialing behind the prison walls that once held the key for a re-entrant’s survival, now sits idly on resumes as a placeholder for what was once a desired career pathway. No one really knows what the future holds, but for those returning home from prison the road will be filled with potholes, barriers, barricades, dead-ends, and challenges that must navigated with patience, tolerance, and persistence.
Over the course of the next few months and years many lives will be lost as a result of COVID19. It will be the elderly, those black and brown citizens navigating poverty, and those behind our prison walls, that will have been impacted the most. Recognizing the reality that hindsight is always 20/20, and with deference to the unprecedented times we live in, it must be the lessons learned that should guide us to improve the choices we made during this pandemic. We owe it to society to show compassion to those returning home, to open the doors of opportunity, and to say those words that people who have paid their debt to society deserve to hear from our lips.