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California Prison Reform Results in Housing Challenges for Former Prisoners

Over 600,000 people are released from prisons across the U.S. each year, and a growing number of reentry providers are prepping to absorb increasing numbers as states reform their systems.

In California, though, as the state implements long-overdue reforms in the criminal justice system, people are being released so fast that existing services are drastically insufficient to meet the needs of this population.

After California was forced by a federal court to confront the crisis of overcrowding in its prisons after the turn of the millennium, the state’s legislature began implementing reforms that have reduced prison populations 25% over the last decade. The three-strikes laws were amended, lifers were allowed to start applying for reduced sentences, and more individuals were made eligible for parole.

While such a reduction in prison populations is certainly welcome, many parolees face significant challenges in obtaining the housing and services that meet their reentry needs. As a stop-gap measure, many recovery residences — formerly “sober living homes” — have been pressed into service as halfway houses for all kinds of parolees.

Crystal Wheeler served 22 years in prison until her release in 2012. She struggled with PTSD resulting from her husband’s abuse and her prison experiences, but she had no substance abuse history herself. As a condition of release, she was required to serve six months in a reentry housing program in Claremont. However, because the facility was designed around recovery, she was forced to attend classes and groups she didn’t need. “I didn’t need to go to AA meeting at 6 a.m.,” said Wheeler. “That time could have been better used for teaching us things that our husbands never let us do.”

One former prisoner, who preferred the pseudonym Richard while describing his experiences, served more than two decades after having his life sentence reduced. He was released at age 55 to a facility in West Oakland.

On top of learning about smart phones and the internet, he had to function in an environment not much different from prison. His living space had eight men jammed in one room, and there was often blood and feces on the bathroom floor. He was subject to invasive searches and witnessed fighting, theft, and drug use. “One of the things the parole board told me is to stay away from drugs, and then I’m put in a program where that’s exactly what I’m around,” he said. After filing grievances and speaking to a lawyer, Richard was able to move to a smaller facility geared more toward his needs.

Since 2016, the state has been allocating more money to expand reentry services, including funding innovative program like The Homecoming Project in Alameda County, a program that pairs parolees with homeowners in an Airbnb-like arrangement. Both parolees and hosts are carefully screened to ensure parolees experience a nurturing environment that maximizes success, and hosts are compensated $25 per day after committing to six-month contracts.

Jason Jones was released after 14 years in prison, though he had been in and out of trouble since he was 8 when he began cycling through the foster-care system. He said all his former homes had mental and physical abuse, which made it difficult to trust people.

Jason finished Last Mile, a program that teaches computer coding, before his release, and had a job at Fandom waiting for him when he was accepted into the home of couple Tamiko Panzella and Joe Klein. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for this situation and the sacrifices and things Joe and Tamiko were able to do, I don’t know exactly how far along I’d be,” Jason said. “I’m only able to start work and do all this stuff because of that assistance that they gave me immediately when I got out.”

Last Mile started with just six men paired with hosts, though it had planned to expand to 25 participants by the end of 2019. It is too early to tell if this program, or others like it, could expand to serve the growing population of parolees. But after decades of tough-on-crime policies, such innovation is a welcome way to move forward.