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The pandemic prompted calls to release prisoners. But the reentry support wasn't there.

The pandemic prompted calls to release prisoners. But the reentry support wasn't there.

Picture of Cassie M. Chew
Kilroy Watkins voices support for a new Illinois law that protects the right to vote for people in detention awaiting trial.
Seven months after release from an Illinois correctional facility, Kilroy Watkins voices support for a new Illinois law that protects the right to vote for people in detention awaiting trial. Watkins’ story was featured in Chew’s reporting on post-incarceration challenges.
St. Leonard's Ministries

After almost three decades on the inside, Kilroy Watkins had good reason to feel conflicted about leaving behind his cell at the Illinois Department of Corrections. 

During those years he had made a name for himself as a jailhouse lawyer, in demand for his skill in researching the cases of his fellow detainees to come up with arguments that could support their efforts to gain freedom. In the final years of his incarceration, Watkins earned the title “Professor” from inmates and “Mr. Watkins” from the prison guards. 

But with nowhere to go, the months before his release were very stressful. 

“You’re relieved, but you are not happy,” Watkins told me in our first conversation when I asked him to describe his emotions as his parole date at the end of January in 2019 drew near and he tried to put together a plan for post-incarceration life. 

Fortunately, a connection he made two decades earlier while a law clerk recommended that he receive one of a few available beds in a six-month residential reentry program that, among other things, focused on introducing former detainees to routine health care. 

The pursuit of education, jobs, housing, health care and other basic needs is how we make our way in the world, but people returning with a conviction and without connections are forever at a disadvantage. Reentry became even harder after the COVID-19 outbreak for people on parole like Watkins, as well as people set to return home amid pandemic lockdowns. 

If advocates had their way, it likely would have been even more challenging.

In the same week that a New York Times story identified correctional facilities in Illinois as top hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks, decarceration advocates there began to call on officials to immediately release as many as 13,000 people from the state’s 28 prisons who either were chronically ill, well into lengthy sentences or who had been locked up for non-violent offenses.

As the outbreaks inside prisons grew over the spring, summer and fall of 2020, it seemed like an idea that could gain some traction. Reports of unsanitary conditions, lack of personal protective equipment and deaths on the inside gave people living inside correctional institutions and their families voice and visibility. Encouraged by a few releases early in the pandemic, reentry service organizations that hadn’t completely shut down got ready. 

But even as the quick spread of a deadly virus seemed like a worthy catalyst for policy change that could lead to reevaluation of risk and ultimately allow people out of prisons who might not need to be there, the lack of investments in reentry health care, housing, jobs and education made it impossible to release as many as a third of people from the state’s overcrowded prisons and jails. Instead, Illinois and other states responded by imposing lockdowns within their prison system. 

Not only were there not enough reentry supports and services, but the handful of communities that become home to majority of former inmates in Illinois didn’t have standing resources to absorb a massive influx of new residents in need of housing, healthcare, quarantine and acute medical services.

Despite the intense coverage, few news reports went beyond reporting on the breaking news of the number of outbreaks in prisons to explore why a massive release of inmates during a pandemic could never happen. 

Now, as inmates and prison staff gain access to vaccines, some of the scrutiny has dropped off. Conversations on what to do with people after they leave prisons and jails have been scarce. But in moving on from the story, we risk the opportunity take a deeper look at how post-incarceration supports and services impact reentry and how successful reintegration is linked to the health of inner-city and often impoverished communities to which people often return in Illinois.

Back in April 2019 when I pitched the Center for Health Journalism on a reporting project that aimed to explore access to health care for former prisoners in Illinois, I had just produced a couple of pieces based on qualitative research that found a link between access to medical and mental health care and successful reentry.

The research is slim, but it suggests that health care and housing are just as important as workforce development opportunities toward keeping people from cycling back into prison, as happens with more than a third of justice-involved people in Illinois.

Earlier in 2019, my alma mater, the University of Illinois hosted a few conversations on what might be done to absorb a large number of long-term inmates returning to communities—many of them, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, older with complex health care needs. 

With the help of the Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship, I aimed to explore how officials and organizations in Illinois were gearing up for these new residents. I wanted to know how communities to which they returned were doing. Would they be able to offer services that could support their new neighbors? At the time, I was thinking of supports for chronic illnesses, not a deadly virus.

In the first few months of my reporting, I searched for programs that were set up to give returnees hand. A few months into the project, I found very few examples of research being put into action. But COVID-19 made us see prisoners as a vulnerable population, trapped between the unsafe conditions inside prisons and the uncertain and often unwelcome environs upon being released. 

The story of Watkins’ reentry interrupted and Euka Wadlington’s release in the midst of the pandemic offer two examples of men in transition. 

Watkins’ experience revealed just how little the state of Illinois invests in the transitional housing needed to keep parolees from a Catch-22 situation. A lack of housing is a technical violation that can land someone back behind bars. Even as Watkins started his parole with a place to stay, the private rental market often remains locked for people without rental histories and references. And despite Illinois’ adoption of the Medicaid expansion provision in the Affordable Care Act, there is limited infrastructure to get people into health care coverage upon release.

Wadlington’s story reveals the challenges people can experience upon an immediate release into a world that has changed not only by COVID restrictions, but also by 21st century ways of connecting and communicating — things inmates don’t necessarily learn in prison reentry programs. 

Most of the coverage on reentry focuses on the story of one individual who has received a “second chance.” Few newsrooms have expended resources to explore the economic and social investments that must be made for successful individual reentry and reintegration into communities on an enterprise level.

As communities in Illinois work throughout 2021 and beyond to contain the spread of COVID-19 and recover from economic losses, I suspect the lessons learned about housing, community health care and its connection to reentry are likely to be left behind.

So far there haven’t been any new bills proposed that seek to help build up communities to support returning citizens which in turn may lead to more successful reentry outcomes. 

But the social inequalities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with greater awareness of systems that feed mass incarceration, have sparked some conversation. So it’s my job now to keep looking for experts and others with new perspectives on past policies that put people with records at a disadvantage. And the pandemic has started to give the population most invested in reentry policy a voice.

Among those experts should be people like Watkins and Wadlington. As this story unfolds I plan to be among the media makers who sit and listen. 

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