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How COVID-19 Forces New Releasees Into ‘Survival Mode’

“I’ve just had to put myself into survival mode,” one releasee in New Jersey, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Intercept. Without a government ID, he took a job as a food delivery driver for Uber Eats – without having a driver’s license. This is because just as he was released from prison the state closed down all driver’s license offices during the pandemic. He had no way of getting a state ID from the driver’s license office. After being pulled over by a sympathetic cop who didn’t take him back to jail, he now makes deliveries by bike.

Former prisoners already face major roadblocks to basic necessities like jobs, housing, and healthcare. And those thrown in jail or prison are usually already poor to being with. After years locked up, they typically come out even poorer. Yet they’re expected to find approved housing, hold a steady job, and to pay for their own healthcare after being ignored by the prison medical system for so long. This “survival mode” is their best option when all of this is out of reach. “Without access to something as basic as an ID, you’re still inside while you’re outside,” said Anthony Dixon, director of community engagement at the Parole Preparation Project in New York.

Even when the government offices do reopen, most prison releasees can’t obtain an ID because they don’t have the correct documents, like a birth certificate and Social Security card, among other documents required by the state. The fact that prison officials are usually required to obtain these documents prior to a prisoner’s release often gets ignored. Dixon says one or two out of every five prisoners he has worked with leave prison without these documents.

Advocacy groups had been working on this problem long before the pandemic hit. “Before the shutdowns, we were making headway in streamlining the process to get people driver’s licenses,” Kelly Orians, co-director of the nonprofit First 72+ reentry program in New Orleans, told The Intercept.

“When the COVID crisis hit, so much of the progress we made was lost,” and now that people are being released from prison, “everything seems hopeless.”

People are still being released from prison, and the backlog for services keeps going. This ensures that former prisoners will continue to be stigmatized and punished after their release, if they can stay out of jail long enough. 


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