Freed From Prison After 26Years—Into a Coronavirus HotspotDuring the COVID-19 crisis, people coming home after decades behind bars find loved ones in quarantine, dire job prospects and overwhelmed social services agencies.

Craig Rixner, moments after he was released from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, in March. ANDREW HUNDLEY

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.”

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What Coronavirus Quarantine Looks Like in Prison“I cannot help but linger on the faces of the elderly prisoners and think about how they are unlikely to survive this.”

A few weeks ago, I found myself watching the TV news from here in a Washington state prison, while drinking my morning coffee. This was my normal routine. Apparently, there had been some sort of an outbreak in China that officials were starting to call the coronavirus.

At the time, I didn’t pay much attention. Like most things, I figured it was far away—everything can feel especially far away when you’re in prison—and would hardly have an effect on me or those around me. 

In fact, my fellow prisoners and I were essentially joking about how the world was coming to an end. A good friend of mine and I are huge fans of apocalyptic movies and shows, so we started to shoot the breeze about how a zombie virus had taken hold in China and would soon spread across the globe. I remember telling him in jest, “This is it, my friend. We better stock up on food and be ready with a plan of defense.” He laughed. We discussed how we could make body armor out of magazines and where we would steal the tape to do so.

But before long, we learned from TV not only that the virus had spread throughout the world, but also that the state of Washington had become the United States’s ground zero. As each day passed, the numbers continued to get worse. The nursing home where the national news was saying that so many people were infected was less than 20 miles away from us.

Like everyone in the free world, those of us on the inside began to worry about our families, especially our older folks, and their safety in the face of an unknown predator. Even in the best of times, it’s hard to know how our families are doing.

And then we started to wonder about our own safety. What measures were being taken to safeguard us from the spread of the virus within the crowded prison walls? We knew that on the outside, people were buying everything they could to prepare for disaster, especially toilet paper.

Toilet paper scarcity is no stranger to us—having more than two rolls in your room at any given time is an infraction—so we became focused on the things we weren’t prepared for, and just how little we each have in our cells for protection. We don’t have cleaning wipes, alcohol-based hand sanitizer (it’s contraband), or anything else that the CDC is recommending citizens use to prevent spreading the virus. The only cleaning solution we have is a mild “all-purpose cleaner” that is not germicidal and, rumor has it, is safe enough to drink.

As the virus continued to spread in the outside world, I along with many others inside waited for instructions on what we would do to keep the prison prepared for when it came knocking on our door—or rather came knocking on our sally ports, metal bars, and barbed-wire fences. 

Prisoners and corrections officers alike inquired about what was being done to disinfect the facility. The unit porters (prisoners who work as janitors) usually can’t use bleach on the common areas. Having a small amount of bleach, even if you’re just using it to clean, will get you in trouble. 

Eventually though, I noticed that the porters were given spray bottles filled with diluted bleach to wipe the living areas down. Nevertheless, one cannot expect someone who is paid at most $55 a month for full-time work to do a thorough, painstaking job of cleaning. 

On one wall, non-alcohol based sanitizer was taped there without a proper dispenser; it’s just a useless substance sloshing around in a plastic pouch. Even things like cleaning rags can be impossible to find, which is difficult to comprehend, as there are large bins of old scraps in our clothing room. Possessing too many rags is also considered contraband, and could get you an infraction, which could mean losing recreation or getting sent to solitary.

The DOC has sent out messages to prisoners via paper handouts instructing us to keep our hands clean, not to touch our faces, and to clean our cells. But how can we do any of this if the proper cleaning equipment is criminalized? 

I was not surprised last week when an employee who works in the living units opposite of mine tested positive for COVID-19. After that, they posted signs down by the phones instructing us to put a sock—yes, like you wear on your foot—over the phone receiver before using it in order to avoid spreading germs. There was no mention of where these socks were meant to come from; we’re only allowed a few socks at any given time or we risk being written up. 

The most drastic measure they’ve taken so far is putting the entire side of the prison where the employee worked on “quarantine.” My fellow prisoners on quarantine are functionally on lockdown, which is what happens when there’s something like a fight. They are confined to their windowless cells for almost the entire day.

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New TDCJ visitation/mail policies punitive and arbitrary

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is changing its visitation, mail and commissary policies for Texas prison inmates in ways which seem arbitrary and unnecessary.

Let’s start with visitation. TDCJ will begin running a drug-sniffing dog past all potential visitors, even children, and deny entry if the dogs alert. If a dog alerts twice, that person will be denied entry permanently.

The move is being billed as preventing contraband smuggling, but that doesn’t justify it. For starters, nearly all the contraband smuggling is done by guards, and the biggest problem is the agency can’t fire them because they wouldn’t have enough people to staff the prisons.

Consider this example from the French Robertson Unit in Abilene last year:

A list obtained by KTXS from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) said that 51 French Robertson Unit staff members were disciplined and one of those staff members was fired for bringing in contraband between January 1, 2013 to July 3, 2019, a six-and-a-half-year span.

Moreover,

The TDCJ also said that out of the 400 staff members at the French Robertson Unit, the number of contraband disciplines “are below average for disciplinary action and contraband issues as compared to the other 103 state prisons in Texas.” 

So one staffer out of 400 was fired for bringing in contraband to the prison, while 51 were allowed to continue working there. And that’s “below average” for other units. So it takes a lot of chutzpah for TDCJ to blame families for contraband! That’s absurd.

Anyway, why not just run the drug dog past inmates before they go back to their cell, or search them, for that matter, if need be. If you’re trying to find contraband, the policy makes no sense.

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