UP CLOSE | Formerly incarcerated individuals reenter society in a pandemic
For formerly incarcerated individuals who have left correctional institutions in the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated many of the difficulties releasees face in attaining jobs, education and secure housing.
In 2016, Orlando native Imani Pennant was living the typical college life. He was studying civil engineering at the University of Connecticut with a minor in architectural design, had a good group of friends, was studying for his classes and said he was just being “productive.”
But in January 2018, Pennant’s life was flipped upside down. He was charged with second-degree forgery of court documents and for the next year, his life was defined by constant visits to court about his case.
Imani Pennant speaking on behalf of the PROTECT Act. (Courtesy of Imani Pennant)
When the state of Connecticut prosecuted and a judge then sentenced Pennant to prison in May 2019, he could not have predicted the changes in the prison system and broader society that were to come in the coming months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States last spring. Upon his release from MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution on March 20, 2020, Pennant said he felt like a “Martian.”
“I went in into a perfectly normal world and came out to realize that no one is being outside at all, everything is closed and there wasn’t anything given to me — any tools or anything like that — to reenter society,” Pennant told the News in an interview.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many of the existing difficulties formerly incarcerated individuals face when reentering society. Often because of their criminal records and a lack of resources granted to them upon release, they face substantial barriers to find employment, housing and access to treatment centers.
In recent months, legislators and organizing groups have pushed for reforms to help those who have left Connecticut Department of Correction institutions. Policy proposals have included increased investment in reentry centers and placing more incarcerated persons near their end of sentence into parole.
However, many activists and formerly incarcerated individuals say that more has to be done and are pushing for change to the structure and aims of the Connecticut DOC itself.
The Connecticut DOC did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the News for this story.
Who is being released?
According to former state of Connecticut Undersecretary for Criminal Justice Policy and University of New Haven criminal justice professor Mike Lawlor, a common misconception is that most individuals being released from incarceration have been in a correctional institution for years. The reality is that individuals with many different statuses are being released at any one time.
“As a matter of fact, a very big proportion, if not the majority, of the people who are being released on any given day by the DOC have been locked up for a matter of days and months,” Lawlor said.
Lawlor says that before the pandemic, around 33 percent of releasees generally fell under the category of “did not return from court.” Those are people who were held pre-trial but were released directly from the courthouse after the trial — for example, if the charges against them were dropped.
The second-largest group of releasees consists of those who are released from incarceration but not placed on parole, according to Lawlor. Only about 10 percent of releasees in Connecticut are released on parole under surveillance of a parole officer employed by the DOC. A larger portion are left in a “transitional” state, such as going to a halfway house — an institution that supervises formerly incarcerated individuals under the purported goal of giving them the skills to reenter society.
Pennant had been sentenced for just one year, a term so short that he was not eligible for parole.
“I went in into a perfectly normal world and came out to realize that no one is being outside at all, everything is closed and there wasn’t anything given to me — any tools or anything like that — to reenter society.”
But Jason Gulino, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for a series of criminal offenses that he says resulted from his drug addiction, was released on parole after serving 19 years in various Connecticut correctional institutions. His sentence was only modified after a habeas trial, when he learned that the prosecutor of his case had engaged in sexual relations with his ex-girlfriend.
Gulino first entered the Connecticut DOC in 1995, when he was sentenced to five years for a burglary, a decision he says he took to support his cocaine addiction. In his last 90 days at the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution, he said in an interview with the News, a fellow incarcerated individual had been “shooting up” with heroin and Gulino started using as well. As a result, he was released to the streets of Hartford with a $1.25 bus fare — but this time, he had a heroin addiction.
About 14 months later, Gulino said he tried to treat his addiction by entering a detox clinic. Gulino said he sincerely regrets the crimes he subsequently committed — including the theft of a police cruiser and a civilian car, and an assault on a 76-year-old woman.
Gulino pointed to his initial introduction to heroin in prison as one reason that he had reentered prison. According to a 2012 Connecticut DOC study, the recidivism rate — when a formerly incarcerated individual is incarcerated again after being released — was about 80 percent.
“I know that my recidivation was based on my exposure within the correctional facilities,” Gulino said. “Had I not been sitting in a dorm 23 hours a day with 116 other offenders that are all trying to scam, connive, live and get high all day long — I would’ve never left with an addiction.”
“I was belly-chained and shackled at 5:00 in the morning, I sat in a bullpen until 8:00 in the morning, then I was transferred upstairs by a correctional officer to a computer room — [but] I have never touched a computer before”
Skills taught in prison
Though some correctional institutions claim to prepare individuals for life after their incarceration, formerly incarcerated individuals like Gulino said that correctional facilities have not given them the appropriate skills to reenter society.
Miriam Gohara, a professor of law at Yale Law School who has worked at the NAACP, said that a “common denominator” for many in the criminal justice system is that they come from under-resourced schools. Many of these formerly incarcerated people are either facing trauma or do not have the resources to pay for good schooling and end up incarcerated. As such, those with low education levels are overly represented in Connecticut prisons.
To get ahead, Gulino attempted to attain an education while in prison but described the process as difficult. He mentioned that he sent multiple letters to the DOC asking for GED courses, but he said that many of his requests were rejected. Gulino stressed that the vast majority of prison residents he knew did not have beyond a fourth-grade reading level. Gulino added that part of the reason why many others did not seek an education in prisons is that there was no well-funded system that encouraged prisoners to attain a GED.
When Gulino was finally able to take the GED test, he said, he failed by just two points.
“I was belly-chained and shackled at 5:00 in the morning, I sat in a bullpen until 8:00 in the morning, then I was transferred upstairs by a correctional officer to a computer room — [but] I have never touched a computer before,” Gulino said.
Gulino doing woodwork. (Courtesy of Jason Gulino)
Zelda Roland, director of the Yale Prison Education Initiative, spoke to the News about YPEI’s work in correctional institutions. YPEI offers incarcerated students access to higher education resources similar to what a university would provide.
Roland stressed that YPEI students are treated no differently than students on a college campus such as Yale’s, and that instructors interact with incarcerated students with the same dignity and respect as they would with their campus college students.
Still, much of YPEI’s educational programming is limited by funding and classroom space. Roland said that limits to YPEI’s activities have especially been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“[Incarcerated persons] have been tremendously isolated, they have gone through great emotional trauma in prisons, they have been disconnected from their support systems and their loved ones,” Roland said. “Unlike students on a college campus, many of our students are not in a place where they want to feel that they must be productive.”
Matt Post, direct service coordinator and former president of the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project, now serves as the Manson Prison coordinator. YUPP mentors male prison residents close to being released about taking the GED.
But because of the pandemic, the group’s work has been halted, as they are not allowed to enter the prisons.
“A lot of the folks we worked with said that [the program] was their favorite part of the week,” Post said. “It was a place where, in an environment where you are constantly silenced and told what to do, we tried to create a space where folks could speak their mind and argue and be creative.”
Release during the pandemic
Both Pennant and Gulino shared what they called “traumatic experiences” in the days leading up to their release from prison.
In his short time at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, Pennant penned a letter to the warden with signatures from 115 other prison residents complaining about black mold. He claims that in response, he was placed in solitary confinement.
“I was quote-unquote ‘inciting a riot,’” Pennant said.
Gulino’s wife, Lisa, expressed fear over her husband’s susceptibility to COVID-19 in prisons toward the end of his sentence. Upon hearing stories of the impediments to social distancing in prisons, she penned a letter to the CT Mirror, calling on Lamont to release many prison residents — including her husband — early.
Additionally, Gulino said that though he knew he would be released soon, the date was continuously delayed and unclear. His wife did not know about his release date until the morning of May 18, when Gulino’s lawyer contacted her.
“I didn’t see him from March 12 to May 18,” Ms. Gulino told the News. “The people that are in there haven’t seen their families since March 12. Now they’re offering video visits, but it’s very limited and it’s $20 a visit.”
Under the leadership of former DOC commissioner Scott Semple, the Connecticut DOC has increasingly released more incarcerated people before their end of sentence onto parole. The goal of this initiative is to integrate individuals into society and prevent recidivism.
Semple told the News that he looked beyond simply keeping people incarcerated as a punitive measure. Instead, he focused on sentence reform as a “smart approach” to apply justice and help incarcerated people reconnect with their communities.
“I truly believe that society has to reevaluate its perception of incarcerated people and that people who enter the justice system and end up incarcerated get tagged with this stigma that impacts their ability to move forward in their lives,” Semple said. “Sometimes in order to survive they go back to what got them incarcerated in the first place.”
Not enough time has yet passed since Connecticut began releasing more formerly incarcerated people early to see if changes in recidivism rates indicate the policy’s success.
Semple explained that, though he has not seen concrete numbers, the need for social distancing in the age of COVID-19 has led the DOC to release many prison residents early in what are called discretionary releases. Many of these releases began occurring after #FreeThemAll campaign work done by activist groups like the Connecticut Bail Fund, as well as demands from the ACLU of Connecticut to release individuals.
Today, there are about 3,500 fewer residents in Connecticut DOC institutions than in March 2020. But the decline in the incarcerated population is not necessarily due to an increase in discretionary releases. Much of the decrease is due to the courts being closed because of the pandemic.
“They’re going to have to be competing with a lot of people who also have lost jobs that may have been of that nature and may now be looking for these jobs just to get a paycheck. Also, you can’t do as much work to apply to jobs in person because a lot of times people want everything done online.”
—Miriam Gohara, a professor of law at Yale Law School who has worked at the NAACP
Resources for people once they are released onto the street
For releasees who have reached their end of sentence, many are released onto the street with nothing more than the belongings they had while in prison.
Community organizations that support formerly incarcerated people and prison reform activists said that the lack of resources given to releasees results in many facing homelessness, a lack of access to treatment for mental and drug issues and, ultimately, recidivism.
Gohara told the News that a challenge that has been exacerbated by the pandemic is finding jobs. She explained that many formerly incarcerated people try to find jobs in the service industry — at establishments like restaurants, construction companies, delivery services and retail stores. These happen to be many of the industries severely hurt by the pandemic.
“They’re going to have to be competing with a lot of people who also have lost jobs that may have been of that nature and may now be looking for these jobs just to get a paycheck,” Gohara said. “Also, you can’t do as much work to apply to jobs in person because a lot of times people want everything done online.”
Additionally, the criminal records of formerly incarcerated people impact their employment options. Some groups, like the ACLU of Connecticut, have fought for a “clean slate” policy that would erase the records for certain individuals with criminal records.
“[The clean slate policy] would erase the records of people that have paid their debts to their society, people that have completed their sentences and have had no interaction with the system for some period of time,” Gus Marks-Hamilton, campaign manager for the ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice Campaign, said in an interview with the News.
One solution that has been pioneered in various Connecticut cities is “reentry centers,” which provide employment resources and social support for individuals reentering society. Importantly, workers at reentry centers sign up individuals for public benefits and help them access identification and social security cards.
Virginia Lewis, program manager of the Hartford Reentry Welcome Center, spoke to the News about the Hartford reentry program. She said that since the center’s founding in 2018, it has seen over 700 people, of which half were eligible for the center’s services.
Lewis said that those who have been released at the end of their sentences are most vulnerable. Unlike those who are on probation and parole, end of sentence releasees are given no resources and are not put under supervision.
But there is one resource that Lewis ranked in importance above all: housing.
“Without housing, you cannot do anything,” Lewis said. “In the pandemic, we know that shelters are closed out. We’ve seen the difference in the hope that people have.”
New Haven Interim Director of Special Projects Carlos Sosa-Lombardo similarly spoke on the work of the newly formed New Haven Reentry Center — a joint project between the city government’s Fresh Start program and local nonprofit Project M.O.R.E.
According to Sosa-Lombardo, during the pandemic the Elm City’s reentry center has been running virtual pardon workshops. He also said they have supported 50 formerly incarcerated people in finding jobs, in addition to signing up individuals for identification cards, ensuring that those with medical conditions get access to medicine and using CARES Act money to provide housing.
For those who have been suffering from trauma and drug addiction, the reentry center has also been able to match individuals with counselors and peer specialists.
Sosa-Lombardo, in addition to individuals from Community Partners in Action and the ACLU of Connecticut, has been advocating for S.B. 572, a state bill that would provide funds for the creation of reentry centers across the state.
“I think that this will result in savings for the state, we’ll be able to provide more social services for the people and they’ll be recidivating at a lower rate,” Sosa-Lombardo said.
What lies ahead
Both Pennant and Gulino have indicated that their stories are atypical in comparison to most prison residents who have been released, in that they have been able to find stability with regard to housing and employment after release. As Gohara explained, many are released without even knowing how to operate a smartphone.
Post described what he sees is a lack of consideration for incarcerated people from the state in the midst of an economic crisis for millions of Americans. He said that stimulus checks from the CARES Act were not initially available for incarcerated people, even though many were about to be released.
“The systems that we have set up do not make it easy for folks,” Post said. “They are intentionally cruel, or unintentional and careless.”
Other policy solutions are also on the table. Pennant spoke about the prospective state PROTECT Act, which would prohibit isolated confinement, end abusive restraints and increase correctional officer oversight and accountability. The bill currently sits in the Connecticut General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.
“For me, the PROTECT Act is important because it changes the etiquette and fabric of how prisons operate,” Pennant said. “Things like the subpar nature of how they treat inmates, solitary confinement, etc.”
Still, both Gulino and Pennant are optimistic about the future. Though they said they did not feel that the DOC had equipped them for life on the outside, they both are happy with their current jobs.
Gulino, who comes from a union family, relies on his skills in manual labor and carpentry in his program All Deserve a Place to Start, or A.D.A.P.T.S. The project aims to address recidivism and homelessness by teaching currently incarcerated people framing, electrical and plumbing skills.
Pennant runs his own LLC called House of Wraith, which stands for We Rise All In Through Heaven. It is a product management company that advertises clothing and finds the best fabrics and models for different types of clothing. He relies on much of the knowledge he has learned while at UConn for this work.
“The sky is the limit. A year ago today I was in solitary confinement looking at a wall,” Pennant said. “Now, I have acquired financial freedom and I can help my family out and other people. There’s definitely a lot more work and giving back to my community.”
Talat Aman | firstname.lastname@example.org