Travis was in the car with Ari Kohn, the president of the Post-Prison Education Program, a nonprofit that helps current and formerly imprisoned people get access to higher education.
Travis’ release date was scheduled for April 7, over a month into the coronavirus pandemic. But that morning, he was told he wasn’t being released. The Washington Corrections Center received a call with news that his housing plan had fallen through. The community house he expected to live in had voted collectively to refuse any new tenants until further notice, a needed measure to support two immunocompromised residents. Unless they could know for sure that Travis didn’t have the virus, they would not accept him.
He called Post-Prison Education Program with the update, and a staff member began a frenzied two-day search for other housing.
While Travis was in limbo, the atmosphere at the Washington Corrections Center was growing unsafe for inmates as a result of COVID-19. According to Travis, guards didn’t wear masks until the night of April 11, and inmates were lined up only 2 feet from each other while waiting for their meals.
“You could tell the staff wasn’t very on board with the whole social distancing thing,” he said. “They were doing some things because they had to, but it certainly wasn’t their priority.”
Such conditions, commonplace in prisons and jails across the country, prompted the Washington state Supreme Court to order Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair to take all the “necessary steps” to protect prisoners statewide from COVID-19. In response, Inslee has said he will release up to 1,100 inmates.
The names of those inmates who qualify for a sliding scale of reentry options, from a reduced sentence to a monitored release, were recently published. But the timeline and specific details of that release process remain unclear, leaving advocates and lawmakers scrambling for answers. The question remains: What happens to those of Inslee’s chosen 1,100 who have no support network?
Travis was eventually released, on April 13, but only because he had support. Through PPEP, he had someone to pick him up and to help him get his groceries and a phone. In the long term, he has help setting up online schooling and planning his future.
In a more typical situation, an individual released from prison receives $40 from the Department of Corrections and the clothes on their back. But Kohn, the president and one of the founders of the Post-Prison Education Program, predicts most people on average need around $1,500 in their first two days of release just to cover their basic, immediate needs, including grocery shopping, access to public transportation, new clothes and more.
Amid COVID-19, reentry options are more limited than ever before, making a smooth post-release transition nearly impossible. Housing options are scarce. Access to support services like food stamps or bus passes now often require online access, a luxury further limited by the closure of libraries. And groups that many former prisoners depend on, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, have moved online, making recovery and community building even more difficult.
In many cases, the releases ordered by the governor will place more pressure on community health care systems, homeless services and housing providers. That pressure could soon increase exponentially as hundreds to thousands more inmates may be released as a result of a recent lawsuit filed by Columbia Legal Services. The suit seeks the immediate release of inmates over the age of 50 with serious health problems and those with release dates scheduled within the next 18 months.
The Department of Corrections has been resistant to releasing inmates. In a recent Seattle Times article, Susan Leavell, senior administrator of the department’s Reentry Division, said release could “jeopardize public safety,” as well as inmates’ own well-being, since the pandemic has cut off resources they would need to successfully transition back into society.
But now that COVID-19 is spreading through prisons statewide and the department and the state are doing little to improve the situation, those whose health or age puts them at risk and those nearing the end of their sentences should be released. A recent report on the conditions inside Monroe Correctional Center, written by the Washington Office of Corrections Ombuds, makes this clear. According to the report, social distancing measures were sporadically observed, those in isolation faced “grim” conditions, including the inability to access communication with loved ones or legal counsel, and many inmates did not have basic information about the virus.
Those incarcerated are at extreme risk of exposure to the virus. The release of thousands of inmates would create a space for the Department of Corrections to respond more effectively to this pandemic. But for those who are released, comprehensive reentry resources are a crucial lifeline to a successful transition back into society.
The Washington state government must step up to offer more resources for those soon to be released and to coordinate efforts between reentry service providers and Washington’s jails and prisons for transportation, housing and basic needs. This should be established not just in the near term but for the future, so that released inmates have a truly meaningful second chance.