HELP US END MASS INCARCERATIONThe Prison Policy Initiative uses research, advocacy, and organizing to dismantle mass incarceration. We’ve been in this movement for 20 years, thanks to individual donors like you.
A new report from Essie Justice Group is exposing the failure of prisons and jails to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19, using survey data from more than 700 people who had loved ones incarcerated in May and June. We helped Essie analyze the survey data and produce their groundbreaking report, Lives on the Line. The report sheds light on aspects of life during the pandemic that cannot be understood through government data alone — such as incarcerated people’s day-to-day experiences and their degree of vulnerability to the coronavirus.
Incarcerated people are even more vulnerable to the coronavirus than existing government data have shown. We’ve used government data to show that many chronic illnesses are more common among incarcerated people, increasing their risk of dying from COVID-19. But Lives on the Line puts a finer point on the problem. 52% of respondents to Essie’s survey reported that their loved one has an underlying medical condition that the Center for Disease Control has identified as “high-risk” for serious complications from COVID-19.
Prisons and jails are supplying only meager amounts of hygiene supplies, if any. We’ve previously shown how even in normal times, prisons and jails fail to provide sufficient hygiene supplies, forcing incarcerated people and their families to make up the difference by shopping at the commissary. Essie’s survey shows that this dangerous trend has continued during COVID-19: Only 7% of survey respondents said they believed their loved one could access enough soap, disinfectant, and hand sanitizer to protect themselves from the virus. What’s more, many survey respondents explained that “although their finances were tight, they were the ones sending their loved ones basic sanitation supplies through private vendors.”
Many facilities are neglecting to provide medical care. 30% of respondents to Essie’s survey said that their loved one did not have any access to critical services like doctor’s visits, mental health care, and medicine. Respondents described their loved ones feeling frustrated and neglected. One respondent testified that nurses in their facility are not giving diabetic residents their insulin shots, “refusing to touch the [incarcerated people] even with gloves on.”
Incarceration during COVID-19 has subjected incarcerated people to extreme isolation. 50% of survey respondents reported that their loved one had experienced lockdowns (which typically limit access to phones and common areas) at some point during the pandemic. 12% reported that their loved one had been placed in isolation or solitary confinement, which has been described as “tantamount to torture.” Prisons and jails’ liberal use of lockdowns and solitary confinement is isolating people and eroding family ties: 11.7% of respondents to Essie’s survey said that they had not been able to contact their loved one at all during the pandemic.
Many people are still incarcerated during the pandemic despite having safe homes to return to. Some states (like Virginia and Pennsylvania) have made consideration for release dependent on whether someone has a viable “home plan.” But 92% of survey respondents said that their loved one has a home to go to if they are let out, suggesting that many incarcerated people with homes to go to are facing unnecessary obstacles to being considered for release.
The limitations of publicly-available criminal justice data have constrained attempts to understand how prisons and jails are responding to the pandemic. But the voices of people with incarcerated loved ones are filling critical information gaps. Essie’s survey data confirms some of our worst fears about the unwillingness of prisons and jails to protect their residents, even through basic measures like providing adequate supplies of soap. Lives on the Line adds important context to the story of how criminal justice decisionmakers allowed their facilities to become hotbeds of COVID-19, and how these facilities have offloaded the burden of caring for incarcerated people onto struggling family members.
Covid-19 has put people with loved ones behind bars in a difficult bind: In-person visits are risky (and have been suspended in many places), but families have to pay in order to stay connected remotely through phone and video calls. For the past several months, some state and local governments have provided relief for these families in the form of occasional free calls. But now, as the pandemic still rages, many facilities are phasing them out.
We checked in on several counties and states that offered free calls at the beginning of the pandemic, and found that many have ended or curtailed the practice. Middlesex County, Massachusetts stopped offering free calls last week. Delaware appears to have ended free phone calls in August; Vermont ended free video calls in June. California, which in April offered three “free calling days” per week, has reduced its offering to two days per month. Pennsylvania has reduced its offer from five free phone calls a week to just one.
Officials may say (as in Middlesex County, MA) that they are phasing out free calls because they are bringing back in-person visits. But for many families, visits still aren’t safe. Family members with medical vulnerabilities may not be able to leave their homes, especially to travel to correctional facilities, which are hotbeds of viral spread. These families depend on phone and video calls as much as they would if in-person visits were still prohibited.
Even people who feel comfortable resuming in-person visits are likely still paying for more phone calls than they did before the pandemic. For one thing, in-person visits may be coming back very slowly, with only a limited number of visits available. What’s more, even where visits are fully restored, the stress of the pandemic means that most families need more communication than normal. People with friends or family behind bars need to stay up to date on their loved ones’ health and provide emotional support, especially given that chronic illnesses that make people vulnerable to the virus are more common behind bars.
The pandemic is making communication more important. Meanwhile, a recession is making communication less affordable. Even in normal times, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one go into debt paying for phone calls and visits, and 50% struggle to pay for basic housing and food needs. Withdrawing free calls now will hurt these already-needy families when they can least afford it.
In the short term, free calls should be extended as long as the pandemic and recession persist. Facilities with welfare funds for incarcerated people (ironically often funded by revenue from phone calls) should draw on these funds, if necessary, to cover the costs charged by phone and video providers. (Some welfare funds have large unspent balances.) Facilities should also pressure their providers to offer more calls free of charge, or at lower rates. Counties and states have plenty of negotiating power with their telecom providers to bring rates down — as evidenced by Dallas’s new cent-a-minute jail phone rates and Denton County, Texas’s dime-a-minute video calls.
But temporary free calls are just a stopgap measure. People with loved ones behind bars need permanent relief from the high cost of keeping in touch. The pandemic should provide an opportunity for states and counties to make long-term changes, such as renegotiating their contracts with telecom providers to secure lower rates, and ending the practice of taking kickbacks from the companies (which drives up the cost of calls for consumers). State legislatures and local governments can also pass bills to make phone calls from prison and jail cheaper or free — in California and Massachusetts, such legislation is currently on the table. Ultimately, the policymakers in charge of jail and prison communications should not be prematurely attempting to “return to normal.” Instead, policymakers should be fighting for a fairer future.
After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, it became painfully obvious that people incarcerated in jails and prisons would be uniquely vulnerable to both the spread of the disease and the more serious medical consequences of the disease due to the high prevalence of preexisting health conditions.
Now, when all of the top 10 clusters of COVID-19 in the U.S. are linked to prisons and jails, and with the 997 COVID-19 deaths behind bars surpassing the number of COVID-19 deaths in 19 states and Washington, D.C., state and local governments should be redoubling their efforts to reduce the number of people in confinement. But our most recent analysis of jail and prison populations shows that many of the efforts to reduce incarcerated and detained populations have actually slowed–and even reversed in many counties and states.
Jail populations dropped quickly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the local authorities who run jails have not sustained those efforts and populations have started to rise over the last two months. Across the 451 county jails we analyzed, 98% of the jails saw population decreases from March to May, with an average population reduction of 33%. But 82% of jails had population increases from May to September, suggesting that most jurisdictions have abandoned the efforts to decarcerate that made such crucial changes early in the pandemic. In 88 counties, jail populations are higher now than they were before the pandemic, including in some large counties like Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan, where the jail population on March 10th was 2,086 people and is now over 2,400 people.
This graph contains aggregated data collected by NYU’s Public Safety Lab and is an update of the first graph in our August 5th briefing. The Public Safety Lab is continuing to add more jails to their data collection and data was not available for all facilities for all days, so these graphs show jails where the Lab was able to report data for at least 150 of the 178 days in our research period. To smooth out most of the variations caused by individual facilities not being reported on particular days, we chose to present the data as 7-day rolling averages.
In New York City, the jail population sharply declined after the pandemic was declared. Importantly, NYC jails–particularly Rikers Island–were some of the first jails in the country to witness a COVID-19 outbreak. And yet, across different demographics, NYC jail populations have slowly leveled out, suggesting that the policies responsible for the necessary decarceration are no longer in practice.
The percent of the jail population detained for technical violations of probation and those serving “city sentences” (a city sentence is defined as a sentence of 1 year or less) drastically dropped, while the percent of the population detained pretrial and those over the age of 50 did not see such drastic reductions. But, across all of these categories, efforts to reduce the jail population in NYC appears to have slowed to a halt despite the fact that 6% of people incarcerated in NYC jails currently have confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 1,400 NYC correctional staff have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
In early August, we reported that state prison populations had been steadily declining, but that the progress was still too slow to save lives. Now, with updated data from mid-to-late August, we can see that this progress continues to be slow, with little to no change between July and August prison populations in North Carolina, Arizona, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Vermont, Maine, Utah, and North Dakota. California has reduced its state prison population by about 7% since the end of July, likely due in part to the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak in San Quentin State Prison in early August, but as of September 2nd, California’s state prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 108% of their design capacity.
Prison population data for 17 states where population data was readily available for January, May, July, August, and September either directly from the state Departments of Correction or the Vera Institute of Justice. The average population decrease across these 17 state prison systems has slowed to about 3% from July 1st to August 31st, compared to the 8% decrease between March 1st and April 30th. Many of the most important policy changes announced in the states that made these small reductions possible are covered in our COVID-19 response tracker. This graph is an update of the graph included in our August 5th briefing.
Sharp-eyed readers may wonder if Connecticut and Vermont are showing larger declines than most other states because they have “unified” prison and jail systems, but separately published data from both states show that the bulk of their population reduction is coming from within the “sentenced” portion of their populations. (For the Connecticut data, see the Correctional Facility Population Count tracker, and for Vermont, compare the March 13 and September 4 population reports.)
Prisons and jails are notoriously dangerous places during a viral outbreak, and continue to be the source of the largest number of infections in the U.S. The COVID-19 death rate in prisons is three times higher than among the general U.S. population, even when adjusted for age and sex (as the prison population is disproportionately young and male). Despite agreement among public health professionals, corrections officials, and criminal justice reform advocates that decarceration will protect incarcerated people and the community-at-large from COVID-19, state, federal, and local authorities continue to put incarcerated people’s lives at risk– and by extension, the communities in which incarcerated people and correctional staff live and work.
The Prison Policy Initiative joined a coalition of over 100 organizations, legal service providers, public defenders, social workers, and directly impacted people to sign on to a letter urging the Massachusetts State Legislature to pass S.2846, a bill that would make phone calls free of cost for incarcerated people and their families.
The burden of expensive phone calls overwhelmingly falls on family members, especially on women: in Massachusetts, families pay $24 million per year to stay connected to their incarcerated loved ones, and a national study found that the cost will put one in three families into debt. Black and brown people in Massachusetts are disproportionately criminalized and targeted by police, so expensive phone calls to correctional institutions disproportionately strip money out of the pocketbooks of families of color.
Before the pandemic hit, more than 50 percent of families with an incarcerated loved one struggled to pay for basic housing and food needs. With the economic hardship brought on by COVID-19, it is now urgent that Massachusetts stops subsidizing our exploitative and expensive carceral system with regressive costs that fall on the most impoverished in the state.
In Massachusetts, there are thousands of people held in jails pre-trial because they cannot afford bail, and their phone calls are the most expensive of all incarcerated people in the state. When people can’t get together the funds to get out of jail, exorbitant phone rates only make a difficult time even harder. Not only do people held pre-trial need to coordinate childcare or elder care, make arrangements for missing work, have prescriptions brought to the facility, or simply have someone to talk to while incarcerated, they also have to organize their defense.
People detained pretrial are more likely to plead guilty just to get out of jail, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to get longer sentences. Costly phone calls play a central role in this injustice by limiting how often and how long pretrial detainees can talk to their families and friends in the service of their defense. As a result, pretrial detainees often present a weaker defense than they would have if they had been able to make calls freely. On a systemic level, high phone rates from jails hurt indigent defendants by draining already-scarce resources from public defenders’ offices.
As a result of the work of Black organizers, constituents across the Commonwealth understand that no-cost calls are about keeping families together. People should not be forced to pay for a lifeline, nor the programs offered by the DOC and county facilities. It is unconscionable that in this moment a mother is forced to choose between buying groceries and talking to her incarcerated child or that a child would need to forego hearing his incarcerated mother’s voice when they most need comfort. The Commonwealth must intervene to ensure that corporations can no longer profit from lines of communication that are critical to creating the support networks necessary for success upon reentry. We respectfully ask you to pass S. 2846 this session!
Halfway houses are a major feature of the criminal justice system, but very little data is ever published about them. We compiled a guide to understanding what they are, how they operate, and the rampant problems that characterize them.
In May, an investigation by The Intercept revealed that the federal government is underreporting cases of COVID-19 in halfway houses. Not only is the Bureau of Prisons reporting fewer cases than county health officials; individuals in halfway houses who reached out to reporters described being told to keep their positive test results under wraps.
It shouldn’t take exhaustive investigative reporting to unearth the real number of COVID-19 cases in a halfway house. But historically, very little data about halfway houses has been available to the public, even though they are a major feature of the carceral system. Even basic statistics, such as the number of halfway houses in the country or the number of people living in them, are difficult to impossible to find.
Broadly speaking, there are two reasons for this obscurity: First, halfway houses are mostly privately operated and don’t report data the way public facilities are required to; second, the term “halfway house” is widely used to refer to vastly different types of facilities. So, we compiled the little information that does exist about halfway houses, explaining how various facilities commonly called “halfway houses” differ from each other, and the ways in which these criminal justice facilities often fail to meaningfully support formerly incarcerated people. We also explore why poor conditions and inadequate oversight in halfway houses have made them hotspots for COVID-19.
“Halfway house” is an umbrella term
The term “halfway house” can refer to a number of different types of facilities, but in this briefing we will only use halfway house to mean one thing: A residential facility where people leaving prison or jail (or, sometimes, completing a condition of probation) are required to live before being fully released into their communities. In these facilities, individuals live in a group environment under a set of rules and requirements, including attendance of programming, curfews, and maintenance of employment.
State corrections departments, probation/parole offices, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) often contract with nonprofits and private companies to run these facilities. These contracts are the primary means through which halfway houses receive funding.1
“Halfway house” can also refer to a few other types of facilities, which will not be addressed in this briefing:
Sober living homes, though sometimes housing formerly incarcerated people, do not serve the sole purpose of acting as a transitional space between incarceration and reentry. Sober living homes accomodate people with substance use disorders, and they’re sometimes called “halfway houses” because they often act as transitional housing for people leaving drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
Restitution centers and community based/residential correctional facilities act as alternatives to traditional incarceration, instead of prison or jail, where individuals can go to serve their entire sentence. In restitution centers, people are expected to work and surrender their paychecks to be used for court-ordered fines, restitution fees, room and board, and other debts. Community based/residential correctional facilities frequently include a work-release component, but they function more as minimum-security prisons than reentry services.
Some transitional housing providers for people leaving prison are voluntary for residents, and are not funded and contracted by the government. Susan Burton’s A New Way of Life Reentry Project, for example, provides safe housing and support for women leaving incarceration. Their services provide a potential model for the future of reentry programs that actually help residents rebuild their lives after the destructive experience of prison or jail.
Some facilities, like community-based correctional facilities, can serve dual functions that blur the lines of what facilities are and are not halfway houses. For instance, a community-based corrections facility might primarily house people who have been ordered to serve their full sentences at the facility, but also house some individuals who are preparing for release. We have included an appendix of the most recent list of adult state and federal correctional facilities that the Bureau of Justice Statistics calls “community-based correctional facilities” (those that allow at least 50% of the population to leave the facility). In our appendix table, we attempt to break down which of those 527 facilities fall under our “halfway houses in the criminal justice system” definition, and which facilities primarily serve other purposes.
“Halfway house” can refer to different types of facilities that share some similarities. These facilities range from entirely carceral to not carceral at all (represented by the locked doors), and feature different priorities and programming for the people residing in them. Their purposes can also overlap, as community based correctional facilities, for instance, house individuals at various stages in their incarceration. For the purpose of this briefing, however, we are focusing on “Halfway Houses in the Criminal Justice System”– which are state or federally contracted facilities for people leaving state or federal incarceration.
Every year, tens of thousands spend time in halfway houses
The federal government currently maintains 154 active contracts with Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs) nationwide, and these facilities have a capacity of 9,778 residents. On any given day in 2018, RRCs held a nearly full population of 9,600 residents. While regular population reports are not available, 32,760 individuals spent time in federal RRCs in 2015, pointing to the frequent population turnover within these facilities.
Unfortunately, much less information exists about how many state-run or state-contracted halfway houses and halfway house residents there are. BJS data collected in 2012 indicates that there are 527 “community-based correctional facilities,” or facilities where 50% or more of the residents are regularly permitted to leave.2 These facilities held a one-day population of 45,143 males and 6,834 females, for a total of 51,977 individuals. However, as we will discuss later, these numbers include facilities that serve primarily or entirely as residential correctional facilities (where people serve their entire sentences). This ambiguity means that pinning down how many people are in halfway houses each day – and how many specifically state-funded halfway houses there are – is nearly impossible.
One reason that we know more about federal than state-level halfway houses has to do with the contracting process. The federal contract process is relatively standardized and transparent, while state contracting processes vary widely and publish little public-facing information, which makes understanding the rules governing people in state-contracted facilities much more difficult.
Halfway houses are carceral facilities
Contrary to the belief that halfway houses are supportive service providers, the majority of halfway houses are an extension of the carceral experience, complete with surveillance, onerous restrictions, and intense scrutiny.
For the most part, people go to halfway houses because it is a mandatory condition of their release from prison. Some people may also go to halfway houses without it being required, simply because the facility provides housing. Placement in Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs) post-incarceration can technically be declined by people slated for release, but doing so would require staying in prison instead.
In federal RRCs, staff are expected to supervise and monitor individuals in their facilities, maintaining close data-sharing relationships with law enforcement. Disciplinary procedure for violating rules can result in the loss of good conduct time credits, or being sent back to prison or jail, sometimes without a hearing.
Federal RRC residents3 are generally subject to two stages of confinement within the facility that lead to a final period of home confinement. First, they are restricted to the facility with the exception of work, religious activities, approved recreation, program requirements, or emergencies. A team of staff at the RRC determines whether an individual is “appropriate“4 to move to the second, less restrictive component of RRC residency. Even in this second “pre-release” stage, individuals must make a detailed itinerary every day, subject to RRC staff approval. Not only are residents’ schedules surveilled, their travel routes are subject to review as well.
Most states do not release comprehensive policy on their contracted halfway houses. From states like Minnesota, we are able to see that the carceral conditions in federal RRCs are often mirrored in the state system. Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) policy specifically calls for halfway houses to “[conduct] searches of residents, their belongings, and all areas of the facility to control contraband and locate missing or stolen property.” They also mandate that “staff shall maintain a system of accounting for the residents at all times,” that “methods used for control and discipline” are incorporated in written policy, and that there are “written procedures for the reporting of absconders.” The exact policies and procedures vary by facility, but all are expected to adhere to statewide guidelines; the conditions and intensity of carcerality will surely vary from halfway house to halfway house.
There’s far more that we don’t know: Lack of publicly available data makes it difficult to hold facilities accountable
Understanding halfway houses — including basic information like how many facilities there are and what conditions are like — is difficult for several reasons:
No standard, transparent policies. There are few states that publicly release policies related to contracted halfway houses. In states like Minnesota, at least, there appear to be very loose guidelines for the maintenance of adequate conditions within these facilities. For example, beyond stating that buildings’ grounds must be “clean and in good repair,” the Minnesota DOC specifies no regular sanitation guidelines. Troublingly, beyond an on-site inspection to determine whether to issue a contract, there are no provisions for regular audits of halfway houses to affirm compliance with these policies.
Privatization. The majority of halfway houses in the United States are run by private entities, both nonprofit and for-profit. For example, the for-profit GEO Group recently acquired CEC (Community Education Centers), which operates 30% of all halfway houses nationwide. Despite their large share of the industry, they release no publicly available data on their halfway house populations. The case is similar for other organizations that operate halfway houses.
Poor federal data collection. As we noted earlier, the Bureau of Justice Statistics does periodically publish some basic data about halfway houses, but only in one collection (the Census of Adult State and Federal Correctional Facilities), which isn’t used for any of the agency’s regular reports about correctional facilities or populations. The BJS unhelpfully lumps reentry-focused halfway houses together with minimum security prisons and other kinds of community-based facilities in a broad category it calls “community-based correctional facilities,” making the data difficult to interpret. We can tell from the most recent data that, in 2012, there were 527 community-based facilities, but it remains unclear which facilities are which (we did our best to categorize them in the appendix ). It follows that the BJS does not publish disaggregated demographic data about the populations in these different types of facilities, making the sort of analysis we do about prisons and jails impossible. By contrast, the BJS releases detailed, publicly accessible data about prisons and jails, including population counts, demographic data, the time people spend behind bars, what services are offered in facilities, and more.
Lack of oversight. The most comprehensive reporting on conditions in halfway houses are audits by oversight agencies from the federal government or state corrections departments. However, these audits are too few and far between. Since 2013, only 8 audits of federal RRCs have been released by the Office of the Inspector General. In the few publicly released reports from state-level agencies, we found a similar lack of frequency in reporting and other significant issues with oversight. In a 2011 audit from New Jersey, the state’s Office of Community Programs was found to be conducting far fewer site visits to halfway houses than policy required. The testing they performed to determine the extent and quality of services being provided was found thoroughly inadequate, and the Department of Corrections had no set standards to grade facilities on performance. Even when site visits were conducted, there was no way of authentically monitoring conditions at these facilities, since halfway house administrators were notified in advance of site visits and were able to pick and choose files to be reviewed.
These woeful inadequacies are indicative of a larger systemic failure of halfway house oversight that often results in deeply problematic conditions for residents. Too often, audits are only conducted after journalists report on the ways specific halfway houses are failing residents, rather than government correctional agencies doing proper oversight on their own.
Conditions in halfway houses often involve violence, abuse, and neglect
Since data remains sparse and oversight is unreliable, we have retrieved the bulk of information about conditions in halfway houses from the media and advocates. The voices of those who have spent time in halfway houses, and those who have worked in them, are key to understanding the reality of these facilities and the rampant problems that plague them.
Over 200 interviews with residents, workers, officials and others associated with halfway houses in New Jersey were conducted for a 2012 New York Times report. The interviewees described over 5,000 escapes since 2005, and cited drug use, gang activity and violence occurring in the facilities. The private company Community Education Centers (CEC, now GEO Group) operates the majority of New Jersey halfway houses. In a 2015 report on CEC (now GEO)’s troubled history, The Marshall Project confirmed the frequency of violence, drug use, and escapes in these facilities. While the role of halfway house administrators in creating unlivable, miserable conditions is unfortunately not the focus of these news reports (nor do they address the complex circumstances that foster drug use and violence), they do indicate that the facilities are inadequately serving their residents.
The largest CEC (now GEO) halfway house in Colorado was similarly subject to criticism when reporters found evidence of rampant drug use and gang violence, indicating the failure of the facility to provide a supportive reentry community. Subsequent audits identified a number of major staffing issues, including high turnover rates and misconduct. This pattern of inadequate staffing extends to CEC halfway houses in California, where a former facility director cited inadequate training and earnings barely above minimum wage. The clinical director of the California facility, responsible for resident health, did not possess a medical degree, or even a college degree.
Improper management and inadequate oversight of halfway houses also enables inequities in the reentry process. Journalists have revealed how, when individuals are required to have a halfway house lined up in order to be released on parole, they can encounter lengthy waitlists due to inadequate bed space, forcing them to remain in prison. In July, a Searchlight New Mexicoinvestigation revealed that one halfway house was asking individuals to pay upfront rent in order to move to the “front of the line.” 89 people who were approved for release remained in prison due to their inability to pay to get off of the halfway house waitlist.
These media reports are too often the only way we are able to retrieve public information about the internal conditions of halfway houses. From the lived experiences of those who have resided in halfway houses, it is clear that egregious conditions in halfway houses are common.
Poor conditions and bad incentives make halfway houses hotspots for COVID-19
Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more important that the public focus on the jail-like conditions of halfway houses which put vulnerable populations at risk. As of August 18, federal Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs) had 122 active cases, and 9 deaths, of coronavirus among halfway house residents nationwide. However, recent investigative reports suggest that the real numbers are even higher, as the BOP continues to underreport cases in RRCs and state-level data is nearly non-existent. For instance, The Intercept noted that the GEO Grossman Center in Leavenworth, Kansas had 67 cases (including staff) in May, as reported by the country health officials; yet the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) currently only reports a history of 29 cases of coronavirus in the Center, with no history of cases among staff.
Cases of COVID-19 are uniquely dangerous in halfway houses due to the work release component of many facilities. When some halfway houses locked down to prevent community spread, people who had been employed in high-density work environments, and/or travelled to work by public transportation, were confined in tight quarters with other residents for an extended period, risking disease spread. Now, as individuals return to work, halfway houses are positioned to be vectors of the virus, as the lack of social distancing and adequate living spaces is exacerbated by the frequency with which individuals have contact with the greater community.
Residents of halfway houses have described deeply inadequate sanitation and disease prevention on top of the lack of social distancing. In the now-defunct Hope Village in Washington, D.C., residents reported packed dining halls, makeshift PPE, and restricted access to cleaning products and sanitation supplies. In a Facebook video, a resident described “6 to 8 people” leaving Hope Village daily in an ambulance.
What’s more, halfway houses have a financial incentive to maintain full occupancy due to the conditions of contracts. While the federal Bureau of Prisons has prioritized home confinement as a component of the CARES Act, and has urged federal RRCs to facilitate the process of home confinement releases despite the financial risk, state systems have been more ambiguous about their recommendations for halfway houses. Since states have overwhelmingly failed to protect incarcerated people in jails and prisons, the outlook for halfway houses is bleak.
The gruesome portrayal of halfway houses in the media can often be the catalyst for formal audits of these facilities. But it should be noted that regular monitoring, auditing, and data reporting should be the norm in the first place. Halfway houses are just as much a part of someone’s prison sentence as incarceration itself, but they are subject to much less scrutiny than prisons and jails. This lack of guidelines and oversight has ensured that people in halfway houses are not being aided in safely and effectively rebuilding their lives after serving time in jails and prisons. It’s past time to start implementing oversight measures and extensive reforms that keep residents safe and help the halfway house experience feel more like reentry – and less like an extension of the carceral experience.
In 2011, the private company Community Education Centers (CEC) received $71 million in contracts from state and county agencies.
In the Census, residents of halfway houses are counted at the halfway house, not at their pre-incarceration home. Halfway houses are supposed to be located in the communities in which residents will return to post-release, but this might not always be the case. We refer to individuals in halfway houses as “residents” as a working term to indicate halfway house placement, but they are still subject to prison gerrymandering.
The very same obstacles that make it hard for people released from prison to succeed — homelessness, a lack of transportation, barriers to healthcare, and more — also make it harder to stay safe from the coronavirus. At this moment, where it is well established that depopulating prisons and jails is critical for health and safety on both sides of the walls, it is critical that policymakers focus on the overlooked hardships faced by formerly incarcerated people. We review our research on the struggles of formerly incarcerated people on housing, income and employment, health care, communication, paying burdensome “supervision” fees and more and explain how these challenges are even greater during the pandemic.
As we reported in 2018, people who have been to prison are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than members of the public at large. Rates of homelessness, as one would expect, are highest among people released most recently.
Living without a stable home is even more dangerous than usual during a pandemic, when social distancing and hygiene are especially important. What’s more, people who are homeless risk being re-arrested for “quality of life” offenses such as sleeping in parks. Maintaining housing can even be a parole requirement, the violation of which can land someone back in prison.
Shelters and reentry organizations provide a stopgap to the problem of housing after prison. But even during “normal” times, these organizations are direly under-resourced, as we found in a 2019 investigation of reentry service providers for women. And during a pandemic, many of these organizations are bursting at the seams or have shut down entirely due to their funding being suspended. A housing official in Denver, for example, said that the pandemic, combined with mass releases, had turned the local shelter system “on its head.”
Income and employment
The ongoing recession is likely hitting formerly incarcerated people — and their families — especially hard. As we’ve previously reported, people leaving prison are not only poor (with average pre-incarceration incomes under $20,000), but have seen their existing wealth diminished by incarceration, and must overcome the stigma of a criminal record in order to find work. The effects are worst among Black formerly incarcerated people; Black women who have been to prison, for example, have a 43% unemployment rate.
Median annual incomes for incarcerated people prior to incarceration and non-incarcerated people ages 27-42, in 2014 dollars, by race/ethnicity and gender. (Prisons of Poverty, 2015)
Incarcerated people (prior to incarceration)
Even for people leaving prison who manage to find a job, certain senseless “collateral consequences” of incarceration can make holding down a job difficult. Millions of people, for instance, are barred from getting driver’s licenses (and therefore driving to work) because they haven’t paid a fee or fine, or because they committed an offense that had nothing to do with unsafe driving.
We’ve previously recommended that the government provide a temporary basic income to people leaving prison, but no state has stepped up to do so. And ironically, it’s likely that most people released from prison in the past few months did not receive stimulus checks, as the IRS clawed back checks sent to incarcerated people. If future economic stimulus efforts also exclude people behind bars, those leaving prison during the pandemic will have less of a financial “cushion” to lean on during reentry.
Poor people returning from prison typically do not have health insurance, since Medicaid’s “inmate exclusion policy” means that states terminate or suspend coverage when someone goes to prison, and not all states re-enroll people upon release. During a viral pandemic, being uninsured is dangerous. It’s especially risky for people suffering from chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and HIV, all more common among incarcerated people than the general public.
Moreover, people leaving prison are disproportionately likely to suffer from mental health and substance use problems, which require medical attention and therefore health insurance. The consequences of not getting care can be dire: People just released from prison are 40 times more likely to die from an opioid overdose. The stress of the pandemic, which has fallenhard on people with substance dependencies and mental illnesses, can only be making this problem worse.
Unless states immediately act to make sure people leaving prison are Medicaid-insured — such as setting up pre-release enrollment, as a recent article in Health Affairs recommended — people released from prison will be in serious danger.
Phones and communication
Imagine having to communicate with your parole officer, or a reentry service provider, without a phone. Or trying to contact loved ones who might connect you with housing or employment. People leaving prison who can’t afford cellphones have always struggled with this problem, but it’s especially difficult during a pandemic. For instance, while suspending in-person parole check-ins is good public health policy, it leaves people without access to a phone in a bind.
State governments know that phones are essential for successful reentry. Still, news reports from states like Hawaii and Texas reveal that states are leaving people who can’t afford phones to fend for themselves, at the mercy of nonprofits and family members. Those who aren’t lucky enough to have a charity or friend to help them will find it difficult to navigate life after prison, and may even face disciplinary action if they cannot communicate with their probation or parole officer.
Long before the pandemic, most states decided to require people on parole and probation to shoulder the costs of their own supervision by charging them monthly fees. As we’ve previously shown in our research on the incomes of people on probation, these fees are levied on the people who can least afford them; during a recession, the burden of these costs can be disastrous.
A monthly fee may be just one of several fees that someone on supervision has to pay regularly. As part of the conditions of their supervision, an individual might also have to pay court costs, restitution, electronic monitoring costs, or various one-time charges.
Unfortunately, most state and local governments have an incentive to continue charging these fees even during a pandemic and recession, because the revenue goes to courts, probation and parole offices, and other government agencies. Nevertheless, a handful of counties and states, such as Multnomah County, Oregon, have, since the coronavirus hit, suspended fee collection.
Ultimately, the obstacles that formerly incarcerated people face right now go far beyond the examples listed here: Poverty, combined with the logistical challenges of living in a pandemic, produces countless daily hardships. For instance, NPR recently reported that in many places, the offices that issue driver’s licenses and other forms of ID have been closed, impacting people recently released who need these critical documents.
The good news is that some states have taken some action to ease the pain of reentry. For example, California and Connecticut have made funds available to provide hotel rooms for people released from prisons and jails with nowhere to go. But for the most part, people leaving prison are being ignored, at a time when proper support for reentry is needed now more than ever. Shortchanging reentry is bad criminal justice policy and bad for public health.
Ginger is joining the Prison Policy Initiative for a year to help advance our campaign to end prison gerrymandering. Ginger has been involved in criminal justice reform for over 15 years and joins us in the interim period between clerkships. As a Harvard Law School student, Ginger interned at the Criminal Law Reform Project of the ACLU, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office. She also represented low-income clients with the Harvard Defenders and the Criminal Justice Institute and served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review.
We are excited to welcome Andrea Fenster to the Prison Policy Initiative as a Policy Analyst, who will transition to the Staff Attorney role upon admission to the bar. Andrea is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, where she served as a student attorney in the Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic and a Notes Development Editor for the American Criminal Law Review. Andrea comes to the Prison Policy Initiative with extensive experience in both direct service and impact litigation, and has interned at organizations including the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, Equal Justice Under Law, and the Prison Law Office. Andrea holds a B.A. from American University, and is committed to dismantling mass incarceration.