When the coronovirus pandemic burst forth in early 2020, jails and prisons as dense congregate settings were particularly hard hit, and a number quickly became covid-19 “hotspots.” In response, Governor Pritzker issued an executive order allowing “early release” for individuals who were near the end of their sentences and medical furloughs for those with vulnerable health. Between March 24 and August 24, 2020, the state Department of Corrections released 1,680 people.
Safer Foundation agreed to coordinate reentry services in Chicago and Cook County. Safer created the PEERR Network, launched a hotline, and deployed Reentry Navigators to help returning citizens navigate barriers to reentry.
This large-scale early release provided a unique window into the reentry experience of returning residents. Safer Foundation and Smart Policy Works conducted journey mapping with participants, combining storytelling and visualization to shed light on the challenges faced by those returning from incarceration – challenges that are only exacerbated amid a national emergency.
Reentry is challenging enough without COVID-19. Besides the stigma that participants already face for their conviction records, the participants had to contend with lack of State ID, lack of digital literacy, limited financial resources, and unstable housing. Many had restrictions due to parole requirements and electronic monitoring. Due to the pandemic, many were on lockdown due to the quarantine and civil unrest, which impaired their access to care packages, food, clothing, employment, and healthcare services.
- Parole requirements
- Securing a state ID
- Healthcare coverage & prescriptions
- Getting a job
- Managing family expectations
The Prison Emergency Early Release Response Network consisted of providers specializing in social services that address social determinants of recidivism, such as healthcare, behavioral health, housing, food and nutrition, and employment. Providers offered crisis intervention throughout the homelessness and mental health process. Reentry Navigators assisted returning citizens in applying for or accessing:
- Food and nutrition
- Access to technology
- State identification
- Medical and behavioral health
- Housing stability
- Parole mandates
The results. Safer Foundation surveyed 323 of the 660 individuals referred to PEERR during the period from from March 24 to August 24. The average participant was a Black male age 18-30 with a high school or equivalent education; 10 were older than 60; 5 were veterans. Here is a breakdown of the services received.
- Direct referrals – 660
- Hotline calls – 1,0129
- Active clients – 323
- Care packages distributed – 112
- Cell phones distributed – 42
- Medical benefit assistance – 146
- SNAP application assistance – 94
- Stimulus check application assistance – 58
- Referrals – 288
- Employment assistance – 160
- Job starts – 39
Our recommendations drawn from this experience provide a pathway for the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois to take this to opportunity to make restorative justice the new status quo.
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