|COVID creates additional challenges for those leaving incarceration|
|Published Thursday, July 22, 2021|
When Jeff Walker came out of incarceration, all he had were the clothes on his back. He was directionless, stigmatized. He didn’t have support. He didn’t have anything. That was five years ago. People leaving jails and prisons and reentering society during the COVID-19 pandemic faced the same stigma, the same lack of direction — all while attempting to navigate a global pandemic.
For those leaving prison, vital in-person connection is hard to come by, even in regular times. Finding a job has proven more difficult due to the pandemic-generated lag times for identification and Social Security cards, not to mention broadband disparities that make WiFi moot in some rural areas.
Walker gets those struggles. After reentering society, but still experiencing substance use issues, he was able to find solace in transitional housing and the connections he made there five years ago. Now, he works to give other formerly incarcerated people another chance as the programs manager for Wilkes Recovery Revolution in North Wilkesboro, and a member of the Peer Justice Initiative, a group of formerly incarcerated people who advocate for others reentering society and within the jail and prison systems.
The pandemic forced many support groups and mental health services to shift to online. After reemerging into society after years behind bars, some reentering society don’t know how to use the technology that has been vital to pandemic-era communication. On top of that, people released without IDs or social security numbers were unable to work for weeks after reentering society, Walker said, especially at the height of the pandemic when the Department of Motor Vehicles was shut down.
Existing inequities such as spotty broadband access were also thrown into high relief during the pandemic, said Philip Cooper, a member of the Peer Justice Initiative. “I was recommending to people: don’t go back to your rural counties right now, go somewhere else,” Cooper said.
People leaving jails and prisons were left feeling directionless, and that can be deadly. One study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that formerly incarcerated people were 40 times more likely to die of an overdose in their first two weeks after release than someone in the general population. “[If] individuals don’t have some kind of support when they’re being released to do something different,” Walker said, “then they’re gonna go back to doing what they know how to do.”
Incarceration may be the place where someone starts using substances for the first time, said Earl Owens II, a member of the Peer Justice Initiative. “I know it’s hard for people to believe, but sometimes people go to prison and create a drug habit. One that they didn’t have before they were incarcerated,” said Owens, who called substance use and mental health issues “collateral consequences” of incarceration.
In an attempt to combat recidivism rates and ease the transition of prisoners back into society, Gov. Roy Cooper established the state’s Reentry Action Plan in 2018. The plan established State Reentry Council Collaborative workgroups, which include stakeholders such as businesses, faith-based agencies and representatives of state agencies, across the state. The plan also encouraged local reentry councils and formal partnerships with community organizations doing the work on the ground.
The Guilford County Local Reentry Council is one of those local groups. While the program has been around for years, it opened its physical Reentry Center in June. Edward “Chap” Williams, reentry director at the center, said it gives people the ability to “change their narrative, their story,” as he peered at the Wall of Fame at the center during an open house in June.
With the help of reentry programs, Williams said formerly incarcerated people can fight the narratives in their heads, such as “You’ll never be anything” or “You’ll be just like your mom or dad.”
Evan Ashkin, the director of North Carolina Formerly Incarcerated Transition Program, said he initially made the “incorrect assumption” that prisoners would be linked to medical care upon release. “Even if you didn’t care about the person, from a fiscal standpoint, diabetes, hypertension, you’re going to wind up in an emergency room with terrible complications,” said Ashkin, who is also a professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “However, that is exactly the case.”
In order to prevent formerly incarcerated people from going without necessary medicine upon their release — which could lead to worsening illness — NC FIT’s Community Health Workers, who have a lived experience of incarceration, connect people with health resources upon their release. NC FIT is a partnership between UNC Family Medicine, the N.C. Department of Public Safety, the N.C. Community Health Center Association, federally qualified health centers, county departments of public health, and community-based reentry programs and councils.
The program has sites in Durham, Orange, Wake, Mecklenburg and Guilford counties, according to its website, but it still “cannot even come close to meeting the need,” Ashkin said.
Ashkin estimated that about 80% of people who participate in NC FIT are uninsured and uninsurable. Because North Carolina has yet to expand Medicaid, people who earn more than about $6,400 and less than $14,500 a year fall in the Medicaid “coverage gap,” and are ineligible for either Medicaid or Affordable Care Act subsidies.
“It’s been tricky,” Ashkin said. “It’s hard to track down people, and we certainly haven’t been 100% successful. We have gotten hundreds of people appointments, so that’s good but paying for it is very challenging.”
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