Prison and Reentry during Covid 19
The last woman (whom I will call Sharyl) that our church met upon her release from York Correctional at the end of her sentence was on March 10, 2020. After identifying ourselves to each other, we walked to a nearby coffee shop. We had breakfast together, discussed her goals, needs and first next steps for the day and for the next few days. She had on her clothing from prison - grey sweatshirt and sweatpants, white sneakers without shoelaces. She carried a clear plastic bag with her other belongings and special medical equipment necessary to use each day.
After breakfast we walked to the New Haven Reentry Center office to meet with Carlos Sosa, a social worker who could give some guidance about housing, medical care locations, health insurance, food stamps, addiction management, etc. We had brought some clothing for her to wear, a duffle bag with hygiene items, towels, paper and pen and a bus pass inside. Sharyl needed to call her brother to bring her other things to her. She used my phone. There was a lot to do on this first day out.
Later that same day, March 10, Governor Ned Lamont declared a public health emergency for the state of Connecticut to contain the Covid 19 coronavirus. This action began the progression of decisions about social distancing, closings of non-essential services, laying people off, and seeking all ways to keep our communities healthy which we continue to experience today. The NH Reentry Center is closed as are other organizations which help those returning to the community from prison find services and help.
Two weeks ago, Mike Lawlor who worked on prison reform for the previous administration, spoke to the CT Reentry Collaborative about how Connecticut was managing the prison population during this pandemic. He reported that as of March 1, there was a drop in people being incarcerated by 790 and this population drop continues by about 40 to 50 people per day. Connecticut’s prison population as of 2 weeks ago is down by 40% since the high point in 2008.
This decrease has happened as the normal outflow from prison has increased, and the normal inflow has decreased. There are several ways the population is decreasing. People who are in for pretrial reasons 800 to 900 people, can post bail and be released in a typical month.
The Department of Corrections has a say over decisions for transitional supervision for those with sentences of less than two years and are not eligible for probation. The Community Reentry Unit makes decisions on these cases. This category has had the single biggest number of releases during the pandemic. DWI house arrest is being utilized more widely.
People who violate their conditions of parole are a large number of those being reincarcerated. These cases do not involve a new crime with a new arrest. The Board of Pardons and Parole are responsible for these cases. These people are a high special needs group. When they are in the community with the right support, they can be successful. There is a tremendous shortage of resources for people leaving prison. This group is where Reentry Centers can offer the most help for them not to recidivate.
Mike Lawlor made a suggestion to us for how to think about putting people in prison during this pandemic to start, and then going forward, consider it for future decisions. For example, when the Covid 19 viral contagion became clear, the medical community in hospitals cancelled elective surgeries to prioritize room for Covid 19 patients. In the Correctional system, the same approach can be used according to Lawlor. Postpone or cancel “elective incarcerations”. Incarcerate only those who, for the safety of the community, need to be incarcerated. For those not a risk to the community, find another consequence for behavior to give to those who have been found guilty of doing something wrong but are not a threat.
Decisions about “elective incarcerations” can start with people imprisoned pretrial, then move to probation/parole violators who do not need to be incarcerated for public safety. This approach will have the community talking about the wellbeing of people in prison, guards, families of everyone, and the community they are returning to.
April is National Reentry Month. The CT Reentry Collaborative web site has comprehensive information, interviews with family members and statistics available for the public to follow what is happening with Covid 19 in prisons. There have been weekly trainings which are on the website and can be listened to at ctreentry.org.
The Rev. Dr. Sandra Wiens
Director of Prison Ministries
Prison and Reentry during Covid 19