This program is easing way for prisoners on compassionate release because of COVID-19 risks

Rutgers University’s addiction-recovery service, helping former inmates back on the streets
Credit: GTPS via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
Some 2,300 prisoners at risk of COVID-19 have been given compassionate leave from New Jersey prisons, but advocates say thousands more remain.

For hundreds of inmates freed earlier this month as part of New Jersey’s compassionate prison-release program, a Rutgers University program helped soften the landing with clean clothes and face masks, a cellphone, assistance navigating the social-services maze and support from peers who have also done time.

The initiative — an intensive addiction-recovery program run by Rutgers University Behavioral Health — is part of a network of community-based addiction treatment and mental health providers tapped to support the state’s release of nearly 2,300 prisoners on Nov. 4. Experts said it was the largest compassionate-release program of its kind nationwide.

The Rutgers Intensive Recovery Treatment Support program, with 255 referrals from correctional facilities in multiple counties, accounted for roughly one in 10 of the prisoners released statewide — the largest share of these former inmates, according to program staff. Accommodating hundreds of new clients at once required significant planning and coordination in advance, according to the Rutgers’ program’s director of community programs Rena Gitlitz.

“Given the personal and professional experience of the IRTS staff, they were able to navigate systems on behalf of the individuals served to facilitate access to needed community-based resources,” Gitlitz said in an email. Staff made contact with 95% of the individuals referred to them, she said, and they continue to help connect some to housing, treatment or other social services.

Trouble tracking former inmates

Whether this level of support is widespread is not known, especially given concerns about the capacity of the community-based system, which has been stressed for years. Some providers have reported communication gaps between state and local officials, making it hard for them to locate former prisoners in need of services. The New Jersey Department of Corrections does not track prisoners after they complete their sentence. While a separate state board monitors those on parole, it was not clear how many of the inmates released are in this group.

“Once individuals leave our system, they are no longer under our purview,” Department of Corrections spokesperson Liz Velez said.

While the majority of the prisoners released Nov. 4 returned to the community, Velez said almost 200 were turned over to federal immigration officials, county or local courts, or out-of-state law enforcement. Another 1,500 are slated for compassionate release on a rolling basis over the next four months, she said.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation in October to initiate the compassionate-release program, which was designed not only to benefit nonviolent prisoners nearing the ends of their sentences, but also to free up space in state facilities struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The law involves a credit system that enables adults and juveniles with less than one year left to get out up to eight months early; prisoners convicted of aggravated sexual assault, murder and “repetitive, compulsive” sex offences are not eligible.

Behind bars and at-risk for COVID-19

The Department of Corrections has also released hundreds of prisoners with underlying conditions that put them at risk for the coronavirus, but has faced criticism from advocacy groups — as well as inmates and their family members — for not doing more to protect this group. There are roughly 18,500 individuals incarcerated at state corrections facilities or halfway houses; since March the state has reported more than 3,100 inmates diagnosed with COVID-19, including 62 fatalities, plus 1,200 cases among prison staff.

Velez, with the corrections department, said the state had been planning the initial release for months and worked with a wide range of public and nonprofit agencies to put in place the pieces inmates need to succeed in reentry: housing, health care — including addiction and mental health services — identification, transportation assistance and the basics, like cash, warm clothes and a phone. At least three in four inmates face addiction issues, experts note, and more than half struggle with other mental health challenges.

In the weeks preceding their return to the community most inmates found shelter with family or friends, Velez said, and the 40 that did not were given temporary housing. Nearly seven out of 10 prisoners had submitted applications for Medicaid coverage, she said, and corrections officials worked with other agencies to expedite the processing. Upon release, prisoners were provided with enough medications to last several weeks or even months, including drugs to treat opioid addiction, and follow-up appointments were scheduled with community-based treatment providers on their behalf.

The Department of Corrections also partnered with other state agencies to try and secure identification for prisoners in advance of their release, Velez said, something that is essential to access medical care and other benefits. More than 1,000 duplicate birth certificates and 1,000 Social Security cards were processed under an agreement with federal officials, she noted, and identification from the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission was issued to 333 inmates.

Some glitches along the way

But despite the advance planning and preparation, the massive release has not been without challenges, according to Tonia Ahern, a community advocate with the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, which works with behavioral health providers around the state. Ahern said she had been told of a prisoner who lost the addiction-control medication and cash assistance he was provided by the state corrections department when he was re-arrested and held overnight by local law enforcement, which then failed to replace these assets when the man was freed the following day.

In addition, Ahern said some treatment providers did not receive an updated list of former prisoners from the Department of Corrections, making it impossible for them to contact and follow up with individuals referred to them for care. And at least one individual reportedly overdosed and was revived with naloxone, but then failed to follow up with case managers and essentially disappeared, she said.

“If it’s happening in one place, it’s happening in others,” Ahern said. “And we need to be ready for the next wave” of released prisoners, she added.