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The Pandemic Adds Another Layer Of Challenges To People Just Released From Prison

Robert Wood poses with family in this undated photo.
Robert Wood
Robert Wood poses with family in this undated photo.

Stephen Harris was sentenced to nearly six months in jail for a parole violation just two days before the courts closed in March due to the coronavirus outbreak. He only ended up serving a small portion of that time — he was released early due to COVID-19.

After just a few weeks away, he re-entered a different world.

The Pandemic Adds Another Layer Of Challenges To People Just Released From Prison
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

"It's so weird, it's like a ghost town outside," Harris said, speaking over video chat from his grandmother's house. "I knew it was serious, but we weren't getting the full message in there. There's nobody on the streets, nobody on the trolley, it feels weird not to be able to go where you want to go."


Other things are missing, too -- one being the contact he'd usually have with the court system once he was released.

"The parole office is closed, they're not doing home visits, instead they're doing phone check-ins once a week," Harris said.

Jail and prison are especially scary places to be right now — the close quarters mean there's a bigger chance of a COVID-19 outbreak. But life on the outside during the pandemic brings its own set of unprecedented obstacles for those just released.

Many are living in crowded transitional homes or with family members they worry about infecting. With a tanked economy, there's little chance of finding work. And routine things like drug tests, meetings with parole officers, or classes that offer job training are either closed or more complicated.

VIDEO: The Pandemic Adds Another Layer Of Challenges To People Just Released From Prison

'Scary' Interactions


Robert Wood was released from federal prison six months ago after 18 years away on a gang-related drug indictment. Without work, he's volunteering his time as a board member with the nonprofit Prison Scholars Fund and with the sentencing reform group Cut50.

He said the expected support from parole officers is not there.

RELATED: Lawyers Call For Release Of More Inmates To Prevent Coronavirus Spread

"Right now they're not coming around as frequently," he said. "And I don't blame them due to COVID19, I mean, whether you're law enforcement, whether you're somebody who's an ex-offender, no matter who you are, you don't want to die from this epidemic."

He said he still has to go in for drug tests, which worries him because he has asthma — a pre-existing condition that puts him at high risk for developing the dangerous pneumonia associated with COVID-19.

"The interactions are scarier because when you do have to go in, how do you know that the person that you're going to see isn't in the incubation period?" he said. "So that's very scary."

Wood has a strong support network through family and friends, but he worries about other recently-released inmates who are now trapped at home.

"If you're just getting out, you need help, you need access to resources that they can help you with, then those meetings are critically important to you," he said. "(The recently-released inmates) may want to go talk to them about job placement or something. And it's just hard to do. You just can't go talk to them in person."

Wood is convinced that he'd be homeless if he didn't have support from his family. He's currently on disability, but doesn't know where he'd find a job.

"Any classes that you would have taken at employment centers, all those kinds of places, the resource centers, the majority of those are closed," he said.

Staff at Pillars of the Community prepare to deliver food donated from local restaurants in this undated photo.
Laila Aziz
Staff at Pillars of the Community prepare to deliver food donated from local restaurants in this undated photo.

Multiply Gaps By 'Infinity'

The holes Wood describes are what Laila Aziz, the director of Pillars of the Community, is trying to fill. The nonprofit helps people who are just out of prison.

"Normally when a person gets out, there are still gaps in the system, where even getting a bus pass to get to a drug treatment class is hard," she said. "Multiply that by infinity now."

Aziz and others from Pillars of the Community are working nonstop right now to get people into housing, and are dropping off donated restaurant meals three times a week.

"Some people just don't have the support, maybe they were foster youth, or have been in the system since juveniles," she said.

She's also helping people sign up for unemployment and get their stimulus checks, which is challenging when not meeting them in person. For people who've been in prison a long time, technology doesn't always come easy, she said.

"Getting them on Zoom can take 3 to 4 days, and the mute button is never on, so we hear the entire household talking," she said with a laugh. "I love it."

But along with all the problems are some positive surprises.

"Maybe their parents or grandparents kicked them out, said they don't want anything to do with them, but now with COVID it's like Thanksgiving dinner, where you say, 'OK you're kicked out, but you can still come eat Thanksgiving dinner,'" she said. "Families are taking people back in because of COVID."