Craig Rixner walked out of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, last Wednesday after nearly 26 years in prison. It was a joyful day—filled with shrimp po boys, new clothes from Walmart and texts from many of his 28 nieces and nephews—but one with an ominous edge. Rixner was returning to a city, state and country that had mostly shut down during an unprecedented pandemic.
“It was beautiful walking out of the prison, but it was also scary,” Rixner said in a phone call the next day. “Because I didn’t know what I was walking into.” His 83-year-old mother, who breathes with an oxygen tank, couldn’t be there to greet him—she was sheltering-in-place in New Orleans. Waiting for him in the parking lot were the executive director of the nonprofit Louisiana Parole Project, which had fought for his release, and the law student who worked on his case. Rixner, despite the warnings, gave her a hug.
Coming home after decades behind bars is always disorienting. But for the people being released in the time of coronavirus, the experience is particularly jarring—trading the fear of getting sick in captivity for a curtailed, isolated kind of freedom. Nonprofits and social service agencies that support them are overwhelmed, short-staffed or moving most of their programs online. Family members they’ve waited years to reunite with are huddled at home. Food service and other industries that might hire a formerly incarcerated applicant have been decimated. And many small, everyday liberties are now a public health risk.
“Before coronavirus, where the average person dreaded going to the grocery store, my clients looked for a reason [to go]. Little things like that bring them joy,” said Andrew Hundley, director of the Louisiana Parole Project, which helps incarcerated Louisianans prepare for parole hearings and supports them after their release. “Our clients are in some sense better emotionally prepared [for distancing]. But you want to be around people and in public places… so bad, because you’ve been in isolation for so long.”
Many service providers say they’ve been struck by their clients’ resilience as the free world unravels. Some have been emotionally supporting family members, sharing tools they used in prison to structure and pass time. Mostly, they are grateful to be facing COVID-19 on this side of the prison walls. “If it spreads inside the prison, those guys are really scared. They walk around with handkerchiefs around their face,” Rixner said. “The guys in prison feel there’s nothing going to be done for them, that they’re just going to let them die.”
Rixner worried he might not get out at all. Within prisons and in online forums for family members of incarcerated people, many are confused about whether releases are still happening during statewide shutdowns. “They were saying, ‘they ain’t letting nobody out. You gonna be here for a while,’” Rixner said, of the rumors spreading inside. He had been approved for parole on March 11, and worried up until the day before his release that prison officials would not let him go. (All parole hearings in Louisiana have since been suspended.)
Attorneys and advocates across the country are pressing states to free even more people, regardless of whether they’ve finished their sentence. Last week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the federal Bureau of Prisons to place more “at-risk inmates who are non-violent” on home confinement, to protect some of the oldest and sickest in their custody. Local jurisdictions across the country have been releasing people from jail and prison to ease overcrowding. But what awaits them when they come out to a socially distanced world in the middle of an economic crisis?
Groups supporting prison re-entry are scrambling to adapt. Many organizations used to connect with clients while they were still incarcerated, to make a plan for release. But as prisons nationwide ban visits and volunteer programs to deter the virus’s spread, it’s getting harder to reach people inside. Advocates and attorneys are trying to arrange phone calls or video visits instead, though some say corrections officials have been unresponsive. Most check-ins with parole or probation officers are now by phone.
Organizations that provide walk-in services are also getting creative. A New Orleans nonprofit called The First 72+ has offices and transitional housing across the street from the Orleans Parish Prison, so people could walk straight from the prison to meet a counselor, set up a doctor’s appointment or apply for benefits. Now, instead of providing in-person assistance, they keep a cordless phone in the mailbox on their front porch, alongside a list of mentors’ phone numbers. Residents watch to see if someone uses the phone, then wipe it down with disinfectant.
“Our residents were adamant that we provide as many services as possible,” said co-director Kelly Orians. “They were the first to recognize that it’s going to be devastating when you realize this moment you were looking forward to for decades might be a part of one of the worst moments in human history.”