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One out of three adults in the United States, or approximately 84 million people, currently have an arrest or conviction record rendering them vulnerable to the adverse, long-lasting impact of justice involvement. This impact includes employer discrimination as well as institutional obstacles in obtaining, maintaining, and advancing sustainable employment and economic mobility, entrenching a cycle of poverty and potential recidivism. These challenges, within a justice system that disproportionately affects people of color, are often compounded by drug or alcohol dependence and/or unanswered mental health needs and therefore require a full spectrum of services to ensure a secure and healthy reentry into society including: workforce & entrepreneurial development, industry training & credentials, job readiness training & temporary/transitional placement, bridge academics, and stabilizing support services. In recognition of these needs, for nearly 50 years the Safer Foundation (Safer) has worked within its vision to transform communities and generations through equal opportunity for all people with arrest and/or conviction records. Most recently, Safer has weathered the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19 and the recent eruptions of mass civil discontent and continued its service provision consistently.
Throughout the continuing pandemic, Safer has provided 24-hr services to over 300 residents at two Adult Transition Centers (work release). Safer also developed a Prison Emergency Early Release Response team (PEERR), a group comprised of 8 agencies organized in mid-March to provide resources and support for individuals receiving early release during the pandemic. At the request of the Governor’s Office and in partnership with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), on March 24, 2020 Safer Foundation and the PEERR team began providing immediate, emergency support to Illinois prison inmates who have been released early due to the Covid19 outbreak via a hotline set up with the IDOC Director of Reentry and Cook County Jail. Operating like a Virtual Triage Call Center, PEERR maintains a hotline number provided to inmates at the time of their release. To facilitate a smoother transition, IDOC provides a copy of each inmate’s release file to Safer with information regarding existing behavioral health issues, physical health, and other confidential but relevant information, upon inmate consent. Those who do not consent to release this information are given the hotline number for future use. This established a system to safely and securely assess people upon exit and determine their urgent needs, such as medications, benefit assistance (Medicaid and SNAP), State IDs, immediate cash assistance, housing and clothes, and other immediate needs. In addition, care packages for people being released are distributed that include two changes of clothing, toiletries, Narcan for people with a history of substance use, cash assistance to enable food purchases at a rate of $15 a day, state IDs provided on site, reliable linkages to substance abuse and/or mental health and physical health services, and for those with particularly high need a cell phone and limited service plan. As of mid-July, Safer Foundation has received referrals for 487 individuals from IDOC and has received over 1,200 calls to its early release hotline since March 24th while working with its partners to address a variety of individuals’ needs, including 150 referrals to network providers.
In order to document the historical significance of the period and draw applicable lessons capable of informing future direct services and public policy decisions, Safer Foundation has included within its PEERR work, a qualitative research component intended to continue into the foreseeable future. This research includes rigorous interviews with individuals reentering from corrections facilities as well as conversations with direct services providers who’ve worked within PEERR. To effectively document this work Safer Foundation is collaborating with subject matter experts and process systems consultants Smart Policy Works to create Journey Maps, effective tools that put a face to the numbers and tell the story of those released in an impactful way. Utilizing an oral history methodology and journey mapping, these interviews provide actionable information to service providers as well as policy makers. Safer Foundation plans to continue the qualitative investigations begun within PEERR and work to continuously provide practical, actionable recommendations for service providers and policy makers while also contributing towards the growing body of knowledge in the field of reentry.
The demand for critical services due to the Covid19 Pandemic continues each week and will continue for the foreseeable future as we begin to see evidence of a resurgence in the illness around the country. And while we are moving into a new phase with the pandemic, we continue to receive referrals from IDOC, as the problems aren’t going away any time soon. The need for housing for people released early as a result of Covid-19 is growing rapidly as returning residents are beginning to have difficulty living in their original approved host sites. The housing backlog grows by the day. Some have already become homeless and it has been a struggle to find placement in alternative housing with limited resources. Despite this tireless effort, Safer is dependent upon new and additional funding to continue this work. As the epidemic resurges and demand for services grows by the day, Safer will be there to continue our work virtually and with limited, socially distanced in-person services. Hopefully social reintegration efforts such as PEERR will be supported now, and in the future, to ensure that justice-involved populations continue to receive access to critical services upon release.