COVID-19 adds more challenges to reentry after prison: 'It's really a whole new game'

©Detroit Free Press

Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS

DETROIT — Daniel Campbell spent five days hospitalized with COVID-19 in March. About two months later, he walked out of prison grateful to be alive as the novel coronavirus continued to tear through the Michigan Department of Corrections.

But as the 44-year-old began to restart his life during the pandemic, frustration set in.

Campbell said he was paroled in May with no state identification, no birth certificate and no Social Security card.

Finding potential work wasn’t a problem. Campbell received two job offers, but his employment hinged on him having a state ID. He needed his birth certificate and proof of his Social Security number to get an ID, but those documents had gotten lost in the shuffle during his eight-year prison term. He wondered how many people in his position would resort to selling drugs and end up back in prison.

“I’m grateful that I found some wisdom when I was in there. And I had my head right,” said Campbell, who received assistance from a nonprofit and now works in home care services in Ypsilanti.

People who advocate for returning citizens say the pandemic is exacerbating the many challenges to reentry after prison. When it comes to getting an ID, advocates say the process is slowed down, by months in some instances, because Secretary of State branches are open by appointment only.

It’s a problem that the Department of Corrections says it is addressing through a program it’s rolling out across the state later this month that will ensure that people walk out of prison with an ID or a driver’s license.

Meanwhile, Daniel Robinson said the returning citizens he helps are eager to start jobs or training but are at a standstill. Robinson is the workforce development coordinator for Worthy, Able and Ready (W.A.R.), a program of the Methodist Children’s Home Society that helps people on parole or probation in southeast Michigan secure basic needs such as birth certificates, IDs, rent and utility assistance, car repairs and workforce development.

He estimates that 75 to 80 out of the 100 people he has assisted this summer need an ID or a birth certificate. Of those, four have completed the process to get an ID while the rest wait for Secretary of State appointments scheduled as far out as December.

“If you’re coming out and you want to get some training and you want to go to school … you can’t even do that because you need proper identification,” Robinson said. “That prohibits them from being able to even get started in a career path or get started with some kind of training.”

And the pandemic is presenting new challenges to how reentry programs connect with the formerly incarcerated people they serve. Many organizations whose work once revolved around in-person mentoring, counseling and instruction are resorting to video calls and phone conversations as a precaution against COVID-19.

“When it comes to walking someone through, for instance, getting his birth certificate, it’s not something you can just tell someone who served 10, 20, 30 years in prison how to do it over the phone. You have to sit down with somebody,” said Cozine Welch, executive director of A Brighter Way, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that provides mentoring to people coming home from prison and helped Campbell get his birth certificate.

“It’s really a whole new game that we’re learning.”

Some organizations saw their funding sources for serving returning citizens dry up when the coronavirus crisis hit. The pandemic paused grant funding for W.A.R., halting the program’s assistance for formerly incarcerated people from March until June, Robinson said.

Once W.A.R. was back in operation, assisting people in getting a birth certificate and an ID emerged as the greatest need.

Robinson said employers are hiring in construction, factory work, the service industry and at call centers, but many of his clients are awaiting an appointment with the Secretary of State to get their state ID before they can start work.

“We’re finding a lot of jobs for them but just for the fact that they can’t get their IDs, their ability to get to work right away has been a challenge,” Robinson said. “That’s been the biggest uphill battle.”

Robinson is working with parole and probation officers, but “there’s only so much everybody can do,” he said.

Allen Carter, of Detroit, envisioned himself getting a job right away after 24 years in prison.

“I really want join the workforce immediately,” Carter said in an interview from prison in May, three weeks before his parole in early June. “I would right now take any job just to get re-acclimated. … I will do anything just as long as I can get a somewhat decent stream of income as soon as I get there.”

Carter, 42, didn’t land a steady income until August. Employers wouldn’t take him on full-time without his identification. Like others, he had to wait to get an appointment with the Secretary of State.

“It’s hard to get anything without an ID,” Carter said.

A program between MDOC and the Secretary of State, announced this summer, will arrange for people to receive their ID or license upon their release from prison. Chris Gautz, a Department of Corrections spokesman, said all state prisons will start processing requests for IDs in the next few weeks. He said the IDs should be ready sometime in October.

Before the initiative, the Secretary of State visited prisons four times a year and provided IDs to roughly 400 to 500 people annually, only about 5% of those who parole each year. Gautz said the department secures between 300 and 700 birth certificates and between 300 and 400 Social Security cards for prisoners each month.

At MISSION-CJ, a program in Oakland County that helps women who have an opioid abuse disorder transition home from prison, it has been a challenge for staff to keep some clients engaged without the typical face-to-face interaction.

Stephanie Noga, who oversees the program as part of Oakland Family Services, said before COVID-19, staff would meet with clients at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. A caseworker and peer recovery coach would determine the client’s treatment needs and start to teach them skills for coping and time management ahead of their release.

Now that prisons have been cut off to visitors since March, staff instead mail an informational packet to incarcerated clients. Meetings that used to take place at an office or a client’s home after their release from prison are now virtual.

For women who’ve spent long periods of time incarcerated, the pandemic presents more isolation at a point in their lives when they’re trying to “create their new story,” Noga said.

“Now they’re coming out into the community and are being isolated more when it should be the place where they’re able to feel safe in their environment,” she said. “And we have this big hurdle to jump over with trying to get them housing, jobs, food and clothing.”

Several years before LaWanda Hollister was paroled, she started to collect information about the resources that she would need to reenter society. A notebook directory she made in prison holds newspaper clippings and printouts a friend mailed her, arranged by topic: food, transportation, clothing, health care.

But when Hollister, 51, left prison in May, she said many of the services and organizations she planned to turn to for assistance weren’t operating or couldn’t help her because of the pandemic.

Social distancing has meant that she hasn’t gotten hands-on training on how to do everyday tasks after 34 years in prison, such as how to pay her phone bill and use a laptop. She said her lack of technology skills has held her back from landing jobs she’s otherwise qualified for.

Some parole agents are opting to meet with people virtually over Google Duo. Gautz said people on parole who don’t have a smartphone or aren’t comfortable with technology can have phone conversations with their agents or still meet in person.

“We have found that the contacts our agents are having during the pandemic are better and more fruitful. Agents have reported that the parolees seem more at ease and open to talking, rather than being sent to an office and seeming nervous,” Gautz said in an email.

For her first video meeting with her parole agent, Hollister said she didn’t realize that Duo was an app that she needed to download on her phone. She went out and spent $120 on a new phone instead.

“It’s just like simple things that people are looking at you like, ‘You should know that. You’re 51 years old,’” said Hollister, of Ypsilanti.

Hollister isn’t alone. Advocates and organizations such as the Ypsilanti-based Youth Justice Fund are helping her. A summer camp that the nonprofit put on earlier this month introduced her to others who’d been in her situation and shared how they adapted.

People who haven’t had similar experiences tell Hollister to be glad she’s out of prison, that her freedom is what matters most. But they don’t understand the daily challenges, she said.

“If I can’t survive out here, what difference does it make if I’m out here?” she said. “If every time I turn around I’m having some kind of meltdown because I don’t know how to use the coffee maker. … How many meltdowns do you think I’m gonna have?”

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©2020 Detroit Free Press

Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS