Re-entry programs face extra challenges from COVID-19

Re-entry programs face extra challenges from COVID-19

More than 600,000 people are released from prison each year and it is estimated that two-thirds will recidivate within three years of their release, usually for a low-level offense. But with the proper supports in place, experts say, some of that recidivism can be abated.

Rochester has a number of agencies that offer re-entry services. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted everything from employment to education, those services were hit hard.

Patricia Stovall-Lane
Patricia Stovall-Lane

“Our strength has always been outreach and recruitment, but based on the pandemic we have not been able to do that,” said Patricia Stovall-Lane, senior director of workforce development for PathStone Corp., a local nonprofit community development and human service organization.

“One of the things that’s necessary for many of those we serve, particularly those in the re-entry population, is not only what everyone envisions as job training, but also education,” said Angela Iocolano, PathStone’s senior director of quality & evaluation. “They need education credentials. They need high school diplomas. They need GEDs. And that’s become a challenge because most of the agencies and partners that we use for that service are closed.”

PathStone provides a number of services for those leaving incarceration, wraparound services that are the nature of its programming, said Bill Wagner, executive director, program development.

“A lot of our work, we call it stabilizing their situations so that they’re able to proceed with training and succeed and obtain a certification or some sort of skill that is in demand by the employer,” Wagner explained. “The next step is to actually place them in employment and the last step is to help them retain the job, because many times they’re not used to the world of work, so giving them those life skills is another aspect of it.”

PathStone began developing re-entry programs because at its core the organization serves individuals living in poverty, low-wage earners and the underserved, said Jeffrey Lewis, senior vice president of direct services. In Rochester, the agency serves some 350 individuals with its re-entry programs.

Jeffrey Lewis
Jeffrey Lewis

“What are the barriers that they’re facing and how do we overcome those barriers?” Lewis said. “We continue to run into in every program that we operate people who had problems that were related to their re-entry into society after incarceration or justice involvement. And we try to figure out a way to help them better succeed and be successful in that environment.”

The agency operates programs that are funded by state and federal dollars, as well as through foundations, Lewis added, but the goal in each of those programs is to help people facing barriers to re-entry. Often that means helping them find employment that offers a living wage, something that’s not easy to do during a pandemic.

To that end, Wagner said, PathStone has stepped up its outreach, which previously took place primarily one-on-one and in social settings, via social media efforts. But even that can fall short as those re-entering society often are not reaching out.

“Ironically, the people contacting us are not necessarily the participants themselves, but it’ll often be their parents or people who have an interest in the welfare of the potential participant. They’ll see our (social media) post and get in touch with us because they have an individual they know who might be eligible and they’re trying to help them,” Wagner explained.

Beyond that, PathStone has found new barriers to engage those clients including keeping them involved with the programs throughout their various stages because the programs are lengthy by nature and many times individuals are looking for short-term solutions. That has only gotten worse during the pandemic.

Bill Wagner
Bill Wagner

“With COVID-19 we’ve put an emphasis on frequent contact with our participants and trying to link them with community services that are still available during this period,” Wagner said.

The pandemic has created additional barriers to employment for justice-involved individuals, said Vicki Belstadt, staff attorney for Legal Assistance of Western New York Inc. (LawNY).

“Community organizations have scrambled to adapt to the changes. For LawNY, this not only meant a sudden shift to remote work but also finding creative ways to reach out to the re-entry population,” Belstadt said.

Part of the organization’s community lawyering approach is to work collaboratively with partnering organizations, to reach clients where they are and to provide legal education to empower them.

“In pre-COVID times we attended events like Parole Orientation, Center for Employment Opportunity’s orientations, Delphi Rise’s Ready Set Work program and many others. Most of our re-entry clients have discovered our services through our outreach efforts. Although we have had some success by staying in constant communication with our partners, and even providing a ‘know your rights’ presentation via zoom, we know there are many others that need services, some that do not have the technology we are now so reliant on, that may not know how to get assistance,” Belstadt said.

What has remained the same during the pandemic are the immense barriers to obtaining employment and achieving financial stability, Belstadt said. Most employers conduct pre-employment background checks and may require applicants to disclose their convictions. To complete this process, an applicant must know what is on their background.

Vicki Belstadt
Vicki Belstadt

“A small error in their disclosure can lead to disqualification. To avoid this, we encourage our clients to request a copy of their criminal histories, more commonly referred to as ‘rap sheets,’ to prepare for application or interview questions about their convictions. By correcting errors on rap sheets, we reduce employment denials based on incorrect or incomplete information reported on background checks,” she explained. “The pandemic has disrupted this process. Due to an inability to meet face-to-face with clients, we have been unable to complete the fingerprint cards that are necessary to request client rap sheets.”

Wagner said mental health has become a bigger issue for those exiting incarceration.

“What we’re doing is trying to address the barriers that are still very predominant in participants’ lives: the whole area of mental health is very large; being able to retain housing; even things like nutrition,” Wagner noted. “A huge one for us now is transportation because it’s become so difficult to move people around during the pandemic. That really is the thrust of our efforts at this point, just trying to kind of hang on to the participants until such time that normal services can resume.”

Wagner acknowledged that it’s possible some individuals may fall through the cracks due to the pandemic’s shutdown.

“We’re hoping not but I’m afraid that may happen,” he said. “A lot of them are in dire straits. Many of them don’t have the access to the supplements that have been provided, such as the tax rebate and the unemployment enhancement. Many times they haven’t filed taxes so they’re not going to get any kind of rebate, and they haven’t been eligible for unemployment because they lack any significant job history to begin with. So they’re really hurting worse than ever economically.”

The organization has been able to offer some of its trainings online, and PathStone has acquired tablets to enable trainers and participants to connect, but that does not work in all scenarios.

“We are definitely impacted by the COVID virus. It’s impacted by our ability to get training certifications. I think that’s where the most significant impact is,” Lewis said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is provide everybody with a credential that’s portable that allows them to get work in the career path no matter where they are. A lot of times we’re taking people to the point where they can be tested but the test needs to be in person and not online. So we’re also trying to fill in additional educational experience to really make it happen as soon as we can.”

Angela Iocolano
Angela Iocolano

In addition to some certifications requiring in-person contact, Iocolano noted that not everyone in PathStone’s programs has access to the tools necessary to participate.

“Online scenarios that we try to put in place for folks, in the interim at least, require that they have devices, that they have internet access, and they don’t always,” she said. “The technology and skills, across the board with all the folks we work with in all of our programs, the lower the income and the more adversities of life people face, the less equipped they are to deal with an online environment.”

Still, PathStone continues to provide those services and in addition to helping participants, is now providing services to employers to make the link with potential job candidates easier via video interviews, Iocolano added.

And it’s not all bad, Lewis said.

“We have received some resources through the Community Crisis Fund. We’re making available emergency services to people directly, as well as through our referral partners,” he explained. “We’ve been discussing the best way to involve banking in the process so we can get reloadable cards out to individuals who are in our training programs so that they have a lifeline right in their own pocket.”

Volunteers of America Upstate New York also offers re-entry programs including a residential re-entry center with 40 beds and roughly 20 home confinement slots for people exiting federal incarceration, said Angela Harbin, regional vice president of housing services. The nonprofit organization also has a housing program called 360 that is a rapid rehousing program specifically for people who have exited incarceration in the last year and are currently homeless.

Both programs were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Harbin said.

“The residential program, like all residential programs, we’ve had to up our safety protocols in huge ways,” she said, noting that the agency now has a full-time individual going through and cleaning. “A lot more personal protective equipment, a lot more precautions about the way we’re doing intakes, the way people are coming back and forth between home confinement and the facilities. Those safety measures have been our biggest operational hit.”

But within the re-entry component, housing and jobs have been VOA’s biggest challenges, she said.

“And with our residential program that community integration piece is a pretty big deal,” Harbin said. “People haven’t been able to leave the facility quite as freely because of COVID; some things are opening up now and that’s starting to shift. But as far as that community integration, it’s been a lot harder because a lot of the work that we do is budgeting around shopping, around managing your time outside the facility, and that changed pretty dramatically.”

In fact, employment took its biggest hit, she said.

“A lot of the employment dried up, the jobs weren’t there so they were losing jobs,” Harbin said. “And in other situations, for a short period of time, we weren’t allowing people to continue employment because they were coming back to a residential facility and it was a safety issue. We’re past that point now and anybody who has a job is working a job. But the unemployment rates are high and it’s already a group that faces a lot of challenges. So that is our biggest piece right now.”

But Harbin is optimistic about the future of VOA’s re-entry programs, particularly because of their essential nature.

“It’s really important work. These are people that are being released into our community. No matter what we think about what they did, not matter what we think about whether or not they should come back, they are coming back and we want them to have the best possible chance at being successful, not only for those individuals, but for the safety of all of us,” she said.

The long-term effects of the pandemic on the re-entry population will be challenging to measure, LawNY’s Belstadt said.

“The inability to obtain rap sheets, certificates of rehabilitation, required documentation from courts and the sealing of convictions has compounded the already existing barriers to employment for justice-involved individuals,” she explained. “Whether faced with consumer background checks, statutory restrictions, or occupational licensing issues, individuals who are otherwise qualified have experienced employment denials or the rescindment of offers. Repeated instances of rejection or termination cause applicants to feel defeated and discouraged. Lack of financial stability can increase struggles in maintaining housing, health and other wellness needs.”

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