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Advocates: Inmates Released Early Due To Pandemic Need Help To Safely Shelter

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department van enters the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles on April 1, 2020. California is planning to release as many as 3,500 inmates who were due to be paroled in the next two months as it tries to free space in cramped prisons in anticipation of a coronavirus outbreak, state officials said.
Damian Dovarganes
A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department van enters the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles on April 1, 2020. California is planning to release as many as 3,500 inmates who were due to be paroled in the next two months as it tries to free space in cramped prisons in anticipation of a coronavirus outbreak, state officials said.

California is releasing thousands of inmates early due to the pandemic without adequate transportation, support services or housing once they get out, statewide prison advocates and reentry service providers say.

"Absolutely do not stop folks from coming home, but we need realistic resources," says London Croudy, with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a nonprofit that advocates for inmates' rights and the formerly incarcerated. "We want to be there for these folks, but we need help!"

The pandemic has prompted the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to start expediting the release of some 3,500 nonviolent inmates with up to 60 days or less to serve on their sentence to parole and what's known as Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS).

So far, the state has released nearly 2,000 inmates with the remainder expected to be released on Monday. The department has also suspended the intake of inmates from county jails for up to 60 days. The moves will free up nearly 6,500 beds to help better protect staff and inmates from the spread of the virus, CDCR says. The coronavirus is spreading in prisonsacross the world including at least 33 cases among staff and inmates in California's prisons.

Frontline reentry programs in California, mostly nonprofits and faith-based groups, are strained and under-resourced in normal times. The state releases about 40,000 inmates a year. But during the pandemic, the people who run these support programs are sheltering in place along with everyone else.

"This is a really important time to examine what we mean by 'essential services,'" says Lenore Anderson president of the group Alliance for Safety and Justice.She says these groups are not getting the help they need during the pandemic. "This should be a top priority for state and local officials: to bring forth the reentry service providers and connect them directly with the local and state criminal justice system and empower those organizations to play the role that they can play."

Others point to a lack of coordination verging on disarray on the releases.

"Across the state, we have warm hand-off reentry programs. It's a great program. Why don't we use that? And connect that to a housing program? Why aren't we coordinating those systems together right now so they work as one?" asked Pastor Troy Vaughn, who has worked on this issue for years as executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership.

Normally, nonprofits contract with counties and sheriffs' departments to help reintegrate former inmates back into society. But Vaughn says the pandemic and inadequate planning make it tough for the community to absorb them without setting up an adequate network.

"There are structures in place," he says, "but they need more support."

The prison system acknowledged the problems in a recent email blast to several nonprofits obtained by NPR. In it, the CDCR's chief of external affairs, Krissi Khokhobashvili, asks groups to send in names and phone numbers of people "who may be able to assist, either with coordinating rides or other services to help people get home or to their reentry sites." Khokhobashvili wrote "as you know, several public transportation locations and other service providers have either canceled or eliminated services..."

Reached by phone, the CDCR's Khokhobashvili declined to comment to NPR.

The email request alarmed advocates such as Vaughn and others, who worry about basic, unmet safety precautions.

"Are they giving people masks? What kind of mask? They're not testing people," Vaughn says. "They're putting people in harm's way those on the receiving end and those getting out."

Ken Oliver, the policy manager Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, says its unreasonable to ask the staff of community-based organizations — who are stretched thin and sheltering in place — to be a car service for people who may have nowhere to go.

"You want us to pick these people up and do what with them?" Oliver asks. "They really don't have any indication of where these people are going to go. It's unrealistic...and I don't think it's fair at all."

CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas says the memo to community-based organizations (CBOs) was meant to open up a line of communication.

"In 'normal' times, many offenders relied on public transportation to get back to their communities. With the suspension of many local mass transit options, we invited the CBOs to help address the gap in transportation. We have opened up the use of CDCR phones — not just those in the collect calling network, but land line phones — to inmates to help them coordinate with the family/support system and CBOs to work out pick-up logistics," Simas wrote in an email.

State prison officials say they're particularly focused on helping recently released inmates at risk of homelessness or housing instability. The CDCR says it's offering existing contractors additional funding for increased capacity.

"For those released to county supervision, reentry programs need to be working with local agencies to appropriately address these concerns," Simas says.

Under an order from Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state — with help from FEMA and the counties — has contracted with hotels to start providing thousands of beds to temporarily help the homeless during the pandemic.

But only a tiny number have been set aside for newly released inmates.

"It's not nearly enough," says Pastor Vaughn. "Once again formerly incarcerated persons are left out of the conversation."

Oliver says the CDCR has not offered his group or others that he knows of any housing vouchers, gas money or incentives for landlords or others to help. "I mean, if there's no housing available for them or there's no reliable form of transportation now, what are you really asking? And at what cost?" he asks.

"We're seeing people come out faster than ever before, that is a very good development," says Anderson with Alliance for Safety and Justice. "But there's a need to provide much more flexibility, more funding and less red tape to these organizations that can help [the formerly incarcerated] safely shelter," she says.

She says these groups have never been equipped to operate at scale "and right now, they're facing added barriers to safely operate in the context of a virus."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.