Locked up to locked out: Recently released prisoners face unprecedented challenges amid coronavirus crisis

Released prisoners are facing more obstacles than ever in returning to society.

April 10, 2020, 4:05 AM

By the time Ronald Reynolds took his first steps of freedom in 29 years out of the front gates of Louisiana’s State Penitentiary, the coronavirus had already begun its quiet, deadly spread through America’s communities that would upend the lives of millions in a span of weeks.

It was Jan. 29, and Reynolds had plans in store. After being convicted of second-degree murder in 1993 and sentenced to life without parole, Reynolds spent his days in the Angola prison using his certification in American Sign Language to assist deaf inmates and working as a hospice volunteer.

It was those same skills, Reynolds said in an interview with ABC News, that he had hoped he could use to begin rebuilding his life and give back to the society that had given him a second chance after he was released under Louisiana sentencing reforms.

However, like thousands of other former prisoners released in the months since the start of the public health crisis, Reynolds’ hopes of landing on his feet have been brought to a virtual standstill because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Weeks into a new job with the Baton Rouge Community College as a sign language interpreter, the school was forced to cancel classes for the foreseeable future. In his second effort at employment, Reynolds said he has seen his hours cut at a local animal shelter from 40 to roughly 15 per week.

Reynolds now spends most of his days confined to his halfway home with the Louisiana Parole Project, a group that provides housing and transition services for former prisoners who have completed long sentences.

“It’s pretty much similar to incarceration,” Reynolds said. “It’s like I left a prison – incapacitated inside of the walls of the prison, to incapacitated inside the confines of the house that I’m living in.”

With federal, state and local leaders around the country looking to speed up inmate releases and transfers to reduce crowding in institutions vulnerable to the spread of the virus, a population of recently-freed prisoners who in normal times faces daunting challenges reentering society is now staring down a more extensive and diverse series of obstacles than ever before, not only threatening their economic security, but their physical health and others'.

Advocate groups and other field experts who spoke to ABC News described an over-stressed system in which workers are faced with tough choices and a delicate balance in transitioning those once locked up back into communities on lockdown, while keeping themselves and the former inmates safe.

“As of now, we've been doing outreach and conducting surveys with reentry service providers all over the country,” Lenore Anderson, President of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization told ABC News. “And right now, most are really struggling to safely operate even for the people that live there.”

In addition to the prisoners like Reynolds, who were already scheduled to be released after serving their time, thousands of others at different stages in the judicial process were selected to be released from incarceration in an effort to protect them and the rest of the prison and jail populations from the virus.

In late March, California Gov. Gavin Newsom cleared the way for accelerating the release of nearly 3,500 inmates from the state's prison system. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has also announced the early release of some offenders out of the city's jails, including at least 650 from Riker's Island prison. And in accordance with a directive from Attorney General William Barr, the federal prison system has released more than 700 prisoners as of Thursday to serve the remainder of their terms on home confinement, which Barr has emphasized is separate from mass releases of prisoners into the general public.

PHOTO: In this June 20, 2014, file photo, the Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York is shown with the Manhattan skyline in the background.
In this June 20, 2014, file photo, the Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York is shown with the Manhattan skyline in the background.
Seth Wenig/AP, FILE

As coronavirus appears in prisons, safety equipment shortages hit half-way houses

Just as hospitals and prisons are grappling with shortages in personal protective equipment to handle the sick, halfway houses and others whose job requires face-to-face interactions with the recently incarcerated have raised similar concerns.

“These service providers need masks, they need gloves, they need toiletries, they need food supplies, they need the ability to operate safely, even for the people who are already there, much less additional people coming in,” Anderson said.

Some prisons have proven to be breeding grounds for the virus. Rikers Island jail in New York City, for example, has been especially hard hit with dozens of inmates and staff testing positive for coronavirus, as ABC News reported in late March.

As inmates are released from Rikers and other jails and prisons in an effort to blunt the spread of the virus in the facilities, however, there is concern some could bring it out with them.

"The key is trying to make sure that the folks that were coming from the system have no symptomatic indications that they might be infected," said Dan Lombardo, the President of Volunteers of America’s Delaware Valley region, which operates several halfway houses.

If they do appear symptomatic, Lombardo says halfway houses have to decide how best to isolate them from others.

He said his organization’s workers have been conducting screenings, frequent temperature checks and regular sanitization practices but have still seen individuals with confirmed and suspected COVID-19 diagnoses in its facilities. Health officials have said some people with coronavirus may not show symptoms, making screening all the more difficult.

“So we're worried that, it's like -- you wonder if it's a ticking time bomb,” Lombardo said. “Is this the beginning, or is this something that we abated? And it's like, hold your breath and wait.”

Then there's the matter of routine medical care for the recently released. At the facility housing Reynolds, a new emerging difficulty has been providing former inmates the medical services they need, according to the project’s deputy director Kerry Myers.

“It's very hard to get an appointment right now at any clinic for a new patient that's not COVID-19-related,” Myers said. “So what we're having is a bit of an issue getting their medications refilled, they come from prison with about a 30-day supply depending on the medication, but once that's up, that has to be refilled and pharmacies aren't going to accept just a prescription number or a pill bottle from the prison.”

Economic standstill hits halfway houses, settlement plans fall through

Even as the project continues admitting more former inmates, Myers said they’ve seen much of their funding dry up due to the economic standstill, between a slowed flow in private donations and fundraisers canceled to comply with social distancing policies.

Ron Stefanski, the founder of Prison Insight, an organization that advocates for transparency in the criminal justice system, told ABC News that the financial struggles facing halfway houses were systemic even prior to the coronavirus.

“Halfway houses in general, they're tough, because they usually rely on public funding and itself a lot of the time,” Stefanski said. “They don't last very long and then, what I find is that a lot of new ones pop up, and then the old ones go away.”

PHOTO: In this January 25, 2013, file photo, a halfway house in Chicago is shown.
In this January 25, 2013, file photo, a halfway house in Chicago is shown.
Andrew Souffle/Chicago Tribune via Tribune News Service via Getty Images, FILE

For recently released prisoners, the availability of a halfway house could be the difference between sleeping in a bed or out on the street.

“Because if their family isn't there, usually they're going to a halfway house,” Stefanski said. “And then if that's not happening, then they go into homeless shelters, and if that is not happening, then they're out there just going completely homeless.”

Barbara Banaszynski, a senior vice president at Volunteers of America overseeing the group’s offender reentry programs, said the group has sought to coordinate closely with state and federal partners to conduct releases in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the safety of the former inmates or the locations they’re sent to.

While the VOA typically provides services to between 30,000 and 40,000 formerly incarcerated people per year, Banaszynski said a worrying trend as of late has been more prisoners released having their settlement plans fall through.

“Those are the people that I'm really worried about -- those people that, for one reason or another, even if it was a good release plan, it fails,” Banaszynski said. “And in this pandemic kind of situation, with limited amounts of beds and trying to keep people from entering in and out and bringing infection, facilities have limited options and they are on the street or trying to gain entry to a shelter situation and really aren't getting the release help that they need.”

At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons told ABC News it has sought to help former inmates required to make "subsistence payments" as a part of residency in halfway houses by waiving those payments temporarily for those who may be out of a job due to the economic crisis.

There are currently 7,368 former federal inmates in halfway houses, and the BOP says it is working closely with staff at the housing centers to transfer individuals who may be eligible for home confinement as an alternative -- in particular those in high-risk categories for COVID-19 identified by the CDC.

Stressors for parole officers, front-line workers as well

A great deal of burden in care-taking is also likely being put on those tasked with conducting regular check-ups on the released inmates, according to former FBI Agent and federal parole officer Brad Garrett.

“The reality is that halfway houses, working with parole authorities, will send more inmates directly back into the community, placing supervision on parole officers, many of whom already have unmanageable caseloads,” Garrett, now an ABC News contributor said.

In tandem with social distancing policies implemented across the country, many states have temporarily suspended in-person check ins at probations and parole offices, though several are still requiring check ins on clients deemed "high or very-high risk" of recidivism.

For those parole officers and other workers whose job typically requires in-person interactions with the formerly incarcerated, the strains of balancing personal safety with carrying out your duties responsibly is more challenging than ever before.

“I think it says a lot about these frontline workers who, you know, frankly, it'd be easy to just go home and collect unemployment,” Banaszynski said. “But they haven't seen mass exodus. You know, these are, these tend to be younger workers who work on the front lines, their schools are closed, their children's schools are closed, the daycares are closed. You know, they're juggling to come to work, and that they're coming to work is a big testament to people's fidelity to mission.”

As he continues to look for ways to get his life back on track, Reynolds told ABC News that he spends much of his recent days speaking with his former fellow inmates at Angola, including video chats with deaf prisoners he previously counseled.

“When you grow up in prison like I did, those guys that you become close with, they become your family,” Reynolds said. “I’ve seen countless people leave that prison, and when they leave I don’t know if it’s because they become overwhelmed with their freedom, or its just so much other stuff that they have missed by being away in prison that we kind of lose contact. And I made a vow to myself that if I was going to be released that I would never let that happen.”

PHOTO: In this Mar 08, 2007, file photo, the  Lousiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA., is shown.
In this Mar 08, 2007, file photo, the Lousiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA., is shown.
Robin Nelson/ZUMA Press via Newscom, FILE

'I have too much life to live'

Reynolds said he is growing increasingly concerned, but isn’t surprised as he talks with friends and watches prisons around the country see deadly spreads of COVID-19 within the incarcerated populations.

“In fact, I’m surprised that it hasn’t gotten there more recently,” Reynolds said, noting that when he worked as a nursing aide, sicknesses like the flu and common cold would often transfer between inmates rapidly.

According to Reynolds, it drives home that no matter the obstacles the current crisis places on his life, he remains grateful for his freedom.

“I survived nearly 30 years of hell, there’s no way that I’m going to get out and come into a free society and -- I have too much life to live,” Reynolds said.

“I’m not afraid. I’m not in fear.”

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