Amid Pandemic, State Releases Thousands of Prisoners — But Will They Have Support at Home?

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer looks on as inmates at Chino State Prison exercise in the yard in Chino, California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

By the end of today, the state will have released 3,500 nonviolent offenders early from state prison, and local jails have already let thousands more low-level inmates go — but advocates for prisoners are worried that those coming home amid a global pandemic won’t have the tools to succeed and stay healthy. 

Prison officials announced on March 31 they would release 3,500 prisoners, most of whom were within 60 days of their release date or had already been granted parole by the state. As of last week, 2,000 inmates had been released from state prisons; a spokeswoman said the remaining 1,500 will be let out by the end of today.

At the local level, many sheriffs have been releasing some low-level inmates on their own. Additionally, the state Judicial Council on April 6 set new rules setting bail at zero for misdemeanors and low-level felonies, further reducing the number of people in jails.

While advocates for offenders are cheering the releases, they are also worried about what will meet these men and women at home. Will they have a safe place to live, a way to make ends meet, or access to mental health or substance abuse services? 

"Independent of the COVID pandemic, successful reentry has not been the centerpiece of our criminal justice system," said Lenore Anderson, founder and president of Californians for Safety and Justice, which advocates spending less on prisons and more on community programs. 

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"For decades, we've lacked in really ensuring that people transitioning back to our communities from prison and jail land on their feet and stabilize," Anderson said.

Troy Vaughn, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, said the state needs to provide nonprofits and other community groups more resources to grapple with both the influx of people and the challenges posed by providing services during a pandemic. For example, he said workers at those organizations need personal protective equipment to serve returning inmates.

"Why aren’t we putting real mechanisms and resources to help them come home and to reintegrate back into society?" Vaughn asked. "I think that because we already had a fragmented system that wasn't coordinated in a strategic way, now that you kinda just throw a whole bunch of people into it, the cart's more than just overturned, it’s drowning."

Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the state is working to ensure a safe, soft homecoming for released prisoners.

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"We have been coordinating closely with community-based organizations to help get those being released back to their communities without the use of public transportation. We have extended the use of CDCR phones — not the inmate telephone network that they are normally required to use — for those being released so that they can better coordinate with their friends/family and or volunteer groups for transportation," Simas said in a written statement.

The releases come as the number of infected staff and inmates in state prisons continues to grow.