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Release in the age of COIVD - 19: reintegration into a socially distanced world

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the lifestyles of many individuals at a global level. The consequences have not only been health-threatening but also economically damaging. In the efforts to slow down the spread of the virus many policies have been implemented, such as wearing masks, maintaining 6ft of social distancing, suspending nonessential businesses, closing borders, and virtual work and school. Negative consequences of the pandemic have been especially felt by offenders receiving early release during COVID-19. Due to the heightened vulnerability of viral spread among staff members and incarcerated population, there have been disruptions in the legal system, resulting in debates regarding an early release for low-level or nonviolent offenders. However, it has been recognized that offenders reentering society are more acutely feeling the effects of the pandemic than others.

The article Releasing Individuals From Incarceration During COVID-19: Pandemic-Related Challenges and Recommendations for Promoting Successful Reentry by Desai and colleagues (2021), discusses how offenders reentering society are being affected in both criminogenic and non-criminogenic ways. By default, formerly incarcerated individuals struggle to adjust to society due to the stigma associated with their criminal history, but now with the pandemic, such challenges become more pronounced. For example, criminal history might disqualify small business owners from receiving relief from the US Small Business Administration during the pandemic. Also, it might make finding employment more challenging due to the high demand for employment and the competitive job market. Individuals reentering society already struggle to obtain employment under normal circumstances, but with the pandemic, this challenge is heightened. However, even if they manage to obtain employment it would be an “essential” job (delivery services, grocery stores, hospital facilities, etc.), increasing their chances of contracting COVID-19. Education and training might also be delayed since in-person vocational training opportunities are shut down due to the pandemic and most of these individuals do not possess the resources to take their training remotely. In addition to that, incarcerated individuals may be returning to households with people they have conflict with, facilitating interpersonal problems and intimate partner violence.

This article considers these problems and focuses on how programs adapted for the pandemic can assist incarcerated individuals in obtaining housing, education, employment, health care, and treatment for substance use disorders. For example, one adjustment made was providing technology-based services such as telehealth for clinical care, so programs developed guidelines to include technological training with other reentry services. Other resources available in response to the pandemic that are helpful for reentering individuals are non-cost educational resources, such as webinars, and mental health resources such as online peer support groups.

Despite all these programs and resources available for the reentry population, there are some recommendations to better aid these individuals adapt to the community during the pandemic. For instance, Desai and colleagues recommend reentry service providers be aware of policy changes from the jurisdictions they operate for a more effective and responsive reentry. In addition to that, it is also recommended to provide immediate support prior to, and following release, due to the drastic changes in the community in response to the pandemic. Reentering individuals should be prepared and informed about the virus, policy changes in the community, norms that should be followed, and what is expected from the community at a local, national, and global level. The researchers also suggest administrating assessments to identify the unique needs of each individual. These assessments should be modified so it determines pandemic-specific risks such as health, housing, finances, employment, and preparedness.

It can be concluded that there should be additional reentry services should focus directly on pandemic-specific issues and challenges. Through assessments, tailored services can be provided to individuals who are struggling with employment, education, family and marital relationships, recreational activities, drug and substance abuse, and much more. Many of these new changes have been established temporarily; however, it is suggested that programs and individuals would benefit from keeping pandemic-related adaptations long term. Even though more research is needed to examine intervention fidelity and effectiveness of altered programs during the pandemic, interventions and reentry services need to alter and adapt their services to meet the needs of the reentry population during the pandemic.

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