No in-depth studies are yet available measuring how departments of corrections that intentionally reduced their populations fared against large outbreaks compared to those that did not. What has emerged is that some states, in the rush to reduce incarcerated populations, neglected to test prisoners for COVID-19 prior to release, thus potentially contributing to the spread of the virus at reentry facilities and in the communities to which prisoners returned.
Nacola McNeil expressed concern to officials that some of her fellow prisoners at the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women were exhibiting coronavirus symptoms in April 2020.
She was initially told the women merely had allergies, but the prison admitted to having COVID cases on the 21st. The next day, McNeil and a handful of others were let go without being tested or quarantined at their destinations. McNeil ended up at a halfway house to serve the final month of her sentence but was sent to an emergency room a couple of days later. A test confirmed she had coronavirus.
A statement on behalf of North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety said the state had only started routinely testing prisoners before their release in January 2021.
North Carolina is hardly unique in this regard. A survey conducted by the Marshall Project and Associated Press of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and every state correctional department requested information about their pre-release procedures. Responses were received from 312 of these entities, out of which only the BOP and 17 states said that all prisoners were tested prior to release. Even fewer—the BOP and a dozen states—said their prisoners were quarantined before being let go.
Thirteen states, plus the BOP, coordinate with local health departments and three states—California, Idaho, and North Carolina—provide hotel accommodations for some releasees who test positive.
Upon release, the majority of ex-prisoners rely on halfway houses or transitional housing before reintegrating themselves into society. The economic consequences of the pandemic, however, has put an enormous strain on those services. Almost 75% of reentry programs in 35 states have either reduced services or shut down entirely, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Yet even those reentry programs that do provide services can prove to be challenging for ex-prisoners seeking shelter after release. Halfway and transitional houses do not accept releasees who test positive for COVID-19. Moreover, they have limited space, minimal resources, and often do not provide screening or testing protocols. As a result, ex-prisoners often find themselves without many housing options, and in some instances end up out on the streets.
A recent parolee from Florida, Bruce Kreitman, was quoted as saying he left prison without being tested. Nevertheless, he told staff at a halfway house that he had tested negative. “I didn’t want them to tell me I had to wait 14 days because I had nowhere to stay,’’ Kreitman said.
As prisons scramble to release more people to manage COVID-19 inside their facilities, the chances to succeed grow less promising for releasees. Reestablishing life on the outside is challenging enough, but trying to do so in the midst of a pandemic can be extraordinarily difficult. Without testing or quarantining prisoners prior to release, correctional facilities across the country are leaving releasees vulnerable to homelessness, or worse.
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