‘Nowhere to go’: US pandemic prison releases prompt housing concerns

Source:Reuters Published: 2020/7/1 18:33:40

When Livia Pinheiro got out of prison, she had been held for more than a decade - first by the state of California, then by the federal government and finally by immigration officials. When it was all over, she had no home to go to.

The words "help we matter 2" are seen written in a window at the Cook County Department of Corrections, housing one of the nation's largest jails, in Chicago, Illinois, the US on April 9. Photo: AFP

Initially charged with robbery, she was released suddenly in late May from the Yuba County Jail, the result of a class-action lawsuit over detention conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"It was the most joyous day of my life. I had been incarcerated since 2009 at that point, and it hit me like lightening," Pinheiro, 40, told Reuters.

But while the virus ultimately prompted the release of Pinheiro and hundreds of others from Yuba County and the Mesa Verde Detention Facility to prevent a heavy toll on inmates, it also posed a major complication for her thereafter.

Pinheiro suffers from multiple chronic conditions and as part of her release was ordered by a judge to self-quarantine for two weeks - but where? "I have nowhere to go," she said.

More than 9.5 million people are released from US jails and prisons each year, according to a University of Delaware researcher in a paper published in February - with tens of thousands going directly into emergency shelters or on the streets.

A disproportionate number of those incarcerated are minorities: For instance, African Americans are almost six times more likely to be imprisoned than whites, according to a 2018 report to the UN by the charity Sentencing Project.

Such disparities have fueled national protests in recent weeks over racial inequality, policing and the mass incarceration of Black men.

Officials recognized the dangers to prisoners posed by the pandemic, and many detention systems responded by authorizing mass releases within certain parameters often prioritizing nonviolent offenders, who were already close to their release date or were elderly.

California's governor in March ordered the early release of 3,500 prisoners, for instance, and the state expanded that order in mid-June.

Jails run by an area's local authorities across the country have "drastically" reduced their populations, according to NGO Prison Policy Initiative.

That has meant a sudden, severe need for housing at a time when already-stretched shelter systems have been turning away new entrants amid attempts to social distance.

"Our jails had never been so empty," said Britta Fisher, executive director of the Denver county and city Department of Housing Stability.

Combined with the pandemic, she said, mass releases suddenly turned Denver's shelter system "on its head."

'Piecemeal' reentry system

The US continues to incarcerate more people per year than any other country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative - 698 per 100,000 residents.

Yet officials continue to place far less emphasis on what happens after release, advocates say - despite the implications for recidivism.

"Reentry has been the stepchild of the criminal justice system," said Jay Jordon, executive director of NGO Californians for Safety and Justice.

"We have a system that incarcerates people, and it's very sophisticated," he said. "But when you look at reentry, it's funded by grants - piecemeal."

As a result, the reentry process is largely the work of housing and other service providers, he said.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, that had important ramifications, he said.

Those organizations were not considered "essential" by the government, and many either halted operations or were not included in policy discussions.

"There was a lack of coordination, so people weren't getting the support" they needed, he added.

Emergency reforms

Still, state and city officials did increasingly move to address the need for housing during the pandemic.

The states of California and New York for example are paying for hotel rooms for those getting out of prison with no home to return to, a strategy the city of Dallas and others have also adopted.

In Denver, Fisher's shelter system was not only seeing hugely increased need but also capacity that was suddenly cut by more than half due to social-distancing requirements, as well as limited staffing. "What we saw was this damage that COVID[-19] did to our sheltering system, taking a model that's about getting as many people in and out of the elements," she said, but adding now that model has to be "spread out."

Part of the response was on an emergency footing: expanding the shelter system into event space and other buildings, and bringing in hundreds of National Guard officers to reinforce staffing, Fisher said.

And instead of focusing solely on the neediest, her office is also looking at who would be easiest to house, with the goal of taking pressure off the shelter system.

They used the situation as an opportunity to move quickly on what had previously been a long-term plan: to start running the shelter program 24 hours a day, rather than the overnight facilities that most cities offer.

Fisher said she and her colleagues are already seeing results from this new round-the-clock approach: A recent survey found that 16 percent of those staying at one of the new men's auxiliary shelters had previously been sleeping rough.

As in Denver, the pandemic has been an incubator for new approaches in many cities, said Kirby Gaherty, with the National League of Cities network, and that now provides a key opportunity.

"Now, how can the reforms that are beneficial live beyond COVID[-19]? Housing should be one of those things," she said.
Newspaper headline: Seeking safe freedom

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