Reentering society after a lengthy prison sentence is difficult even in the best of times. But these days, it’s harder than usual.
Jobs are scarce, resources are limited, and support systems have been forced apart. Those leaving prison are finding that adjusting back to “normal” life isn’t an option right now.
Tracston Neal has been thinking about the day he would be released from prison. And on April 1, that day finally came.
“Once I walked out those gates, it just was, it was — I can’t explain the feeling,” Neal said shortly after his release from Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. “Like, right now, even today, it still doesn’t seem real that I’ve done so much time, I’m still alive, and I’m free.”
Neal served 11 years and nine months on attempted murder and aggravated assault charges. But he didn’t get quite the homecoming he expected.
“I just come from being locked up to, you know, another form of being locked up, basically,” he says.
Neal is quarantining with relatives in Lebanon. He’s savoring the home-cooked meals and family time that he missed for over a decade. And Neal is relieved to have made it out of prison before COVID-19 started spreading within the 750-person facility, where he says the virus has been “the talk around the whole prison” for weeks.
“I didn’t even think I was gonna make it out,” he says. “I had already made parole, but, basically, they were saying, if we go on quarantine, it’s no way they’re gonna let me go.”
Still, Neal’s first few weeks on the outside have been even tougher than expected.
The 32-year-old already had a job lined up at a catering company in Mt. Juliet. But with no big events happening any time soon, the business is temporarily shut down.
Even smaller things like getting a driver’s license are impossible now, because the state isn’t doing road tests.
Bettie Kirkland, the executive director of Project Return, says many Tennesseans who have recently been released from prison are hitting similar roadblocks.
“People getting out of prison have always faced, you know, nearly insurmountable odds,” she says. “With COVID-19, it’s just raised it to a whole other level.”
Kirkland’s organization helps hundreds of newly released individuals transition into the workforce each year. But she says many of those jobs are in industries hit hard by COVID-19, like hospitality and manufacturing.
Even before the pandemic, formerly incarcerated people were unemployed at nearly five times the rate of the average American, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Now, Kirkland estimates about 75% of her clients have lost their jobs.
She says Project Return has had to shift gears in recent weeks, to address more immediate needs. Many are struggling even more than usual to find meals or a place to sleep.
“We are spending more money on buying people tents and sleeping bags and putting people up in hotels,” Kirkland says. “It’s a fairly desperate situation.”
And like many businesses and nonprofits, Project Return’s budget has also taken a blow during the pandemic. The organization has laid off several employees. And a company it runs to connect formerly incarcerated people with employment opportunities has shut down temporarily.
Plus, Project Return has had to pause many in-person services, like job training classes and medical exams.
For now, the organization is getting creative, to offer as much help as possible without putting people in danger. Staff donning masks have set up shop in the parking lot, offering meals and counseling from a distance. They’re also looking for a larger space to host classes, where clients would be able to sit far away from one another.
Still, many of the organization’s hands-on services will have to wait, for now.
Kirkland says she’s glad inmates are being released during the coronavirus outbreak. But she thinks life outside of prison also needs to be part of the conversation.
“There seems to be very little contemplation of how it goes for them once they do get out,” Kirkland says. “In good times, it’s difficult. In a pandemic, it is terrible.”
‘A potential death sentence’
David Raybin is telling his clients the same thing.
The Nashville defense attorney has been pushing the state to release more inmates. Last month, he wrote a letter to the Board of Parole, urging members to help reduce the prison population.
“Being in prison with this virus is a potential death sentence for people,” Raybin says. “Anything is better than being in prison and allowing this virus to infect themselves.”
And Raybin says the board — which is known for its low parole rate — seems to be relaxing its requirements a bit. Several of his clients who are older or have underlying health issues have already been released.
But the attorney knows they’ll face challenges. Not only are jobs in short supply and reentry programs like Project Return operating at limited capacity. So are parole and probation offices.
“There has been a struggle for the clients who have been released in recent weeks,” Raybin says. “Communications are dreadful, because of the closing of many of these parole offices. They’re not meeting with their counselors. They may not be getting the help that they need.”
Raybin says former prisoners with the best chance of success are those with supportive families, who can serve as a “second parole officer.”
Adjusting to a new normal, with patience
For Tracston Neal, who’s just a few weeks into life beyond bars, support from family — including his mom — has been essential. Even if they can’t all be together in person.
Plus, he’s learned some new ways to keep in touch with the relatives and friends he can’t see while everyone’s quarantining at home.
“I just now learned how to actually use a phone — like, an iPhone — and it’s crazy,” he says. “The technology is, like, out of this world.”
And Neal is working hard to meet all of his parole requirements.
Earlier this month, he applied for a business license. He hopes to start his own landscaping or cleaning service — two professions he thinks will be pandemic-proof.
Neal doesn’t know when he’ll get to be in the same rooms as all the loved ones he hasn’t seen in over a decade. But, for now, he’s trying to be patient.
“I just believe everything will pass. I don’t know when,” Neal says. “I’m just praying. That’s all I can do is just wake up and thank God I’m still living and breathing and well. And just pray my way through.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.