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Every year about 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons. As part of our "Searching for Justice" series, Amna Nawaz spoke with formerly incarcerated people about the difficulties older men and women face after decades behind bars, and Nicole Ellis sat down with a panel of experts to examine issues surrounding reentry into society after prison.
Every year, about 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons.
In a moment, we will hear from experts about policies that could help those people better reintegrate into society.
But, first, as part of the "PBS NewsHour"'s Searching For Justice series, here now is a reprise of conversations I had with some formerly incarcerated people about the difficulties older men and women face after decades behind bars.
Melvin Malcolm, Patient, Transitions Clinic Network:
How you doing, Dr. Shavit?
Dr. Shira Shavit, Transitions Clinic Network:
Good. How's it going?
It's part of our ongoing series Searching For Justice.
At the Transitions Clinic Network in San Francisco, Dr. Shira Shavit's first patient of the day is Melvin Malcolm.
Dr. Shira Shavit:
So how's the fatigue been? Are you still feeling pretty tired?
Yes, I still am.
Malcolm is 74 years old. He suffers from degenerative rheumatoid arthritis and prostate cancer.
I'm just going to take a quick listen to your heart.
Diseases he developed while serving 38 years in prison for murder and robbery. He was released just three months ago, and, so far, life on the outside hasn't been easy.
What are some of the challenges that you're facing day to day?
Handling things on your own.
Generally, incarcerated, everything is handled for you. Your medication is brought to you. You're told when to eat. You're told when you put a — when to sleep. Things are more or less programmed for you.
Once you come out, you have to do things on your own. And it's pretty hard. And it's pretty hard to get used to doing that.
Go head and relax your arm for me, please.
He says the health care he's getting now is much better than what he got in prison, but nearly four decades behind bars has taken a toll.
I have the degenerative rheumatoid arthritis, as you can see by my hands. And I'm going to have, I think, knee surgery. And my feet are really — are really bad.
Did anything else come up in your visits with him today?
Dr. Shavit says Malcolm is a typical patient here at Transitions, a national network of nearly 50 nonprofit health clinics that serve people post-incarceration.
Our practice here, 66 percent of people have done 30 or more years in the state prison system. And what we know is that people age more quickly when they're incarcerated. And so when we think of older adults, we actually think of people who are 55 and older who have been in the system.
The team here at Transitions tries to step in and meet the most pressing needs, not just medical.
That's why you have that little phone icon.
There's technology training.
How you doing?
Help getting I.D.s and documentation…
They didn't put my middle name on the I.D. card.
And access to food.
Ron Sanders, Transitions Clinic Network:
We also got some chicken too.
Yes, chicken is OK too.
A key part of this team? People who know what reentry after prison is like, people like 58-year-old Ron Sanders. He battled addiction and was in and out of prison during his 20s on drug charges.
So, imagine somebody's been locked up for 20, 30, 40 years. It's good to have somebody to help you guide you along.
Is this your first time going to Walgreens to get the medications?
No, this is not the first time, but it's the first time I'm going to get a refill.
He's been working at Transitions for 15 years as a community health worker, and spends a lot of time building connections and trust with patients often skeptical of the system.
Why do you think they trust you?
Because they know I came from the same place they came from. I have been in those shoes before. And I know. And, also, I know how scary it is just getting out. And especially when you get out and you don't have any, like, family support or anything, it's really tough.
But for older adults exiting prison, this level of support is rare.
Few clinics like this exist across the country. And the ones that do are often located in urban areas. For people who need longer-term medical care, the options are even more limited.
Leticia, Resident, 60 West: Being away for a while, I was really scared.
Leticia is a 67 year-old woman who suffers from mental health disorders and lymphedema, which causes swelling of the arms and legs. She served 17 years in prison for murder. She asked us not to use her last name.
I have PTSD, and I had deep depression, and I was very, very disturbed.
In 2019, she was released from prison, and discharged to 60 West, a privately-owned nursing home in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, with 95 beds.
Opened in 2013, 60 West is funded mainly by the state of Connecticut and its Medicaid system. Many residents here are formerly incarcerated.
Jessica DeRing, Administrator, 60 West: Being able to look anyone up and find out what their history is very easy now in our social world.
Administrator Jessica DeRing says nursing homes are often reluctant to accept residents who've committed serious crimes.
Now, certainly, the person could be the picture of nursing home-appropriate. However, traditional nursing homes weren't giving them a chance to be a part of their community. So that's why 60 West was created, so that we could provide an environment of stigma-free living.
If this place wasn't here, where would you have gone? What were your options?
I don't know. Probably a shelter.
Jessica DeRing says, because the cost of care inside prisons is so high, this is a more cost-effective approach for the state of Connecticut.
Having us open actually saves the taxpayers of Connecticut annually, because we focus on care. So we can do it in a much more efficient manner. And, ultimately, it costs less money.
Well, to further examine some of the issues surrounding reentry, the "NewsHour"'s Nicole Ellis sat down with a panel of experts: Vanessa Chen, a special assistant to the president, Keesha Middlemass, a Howard University professor who focuses on criminal justice, and Jay Jordan, who was himself formerly incarcerated himself and is now the vice president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice.
Here now is an excerpt from their conversation.
Jay, you have personally experienced that rocky moment of reentry and trying to get your bearings and reestablish your life.
What was your experience like as a young person reentering society?
Jay Jordan, Vice President, Alliance for Safety and Justice: In my personal experience, I was fortunate enough to go home to a mother and father.
You know, I was fortunate enough to have a plan, sit down inside a facility and write down a plan. But when I got out, I wanted to sell used cars. I wanted to sell real estate. I wanted to sell insurance, right?
Contrary to popular belief, I know how to cut hair. I wanted to be a barber. I couldn't do any of that. You know, I was told, no, I couldn't get my insurance license. I was told, no, I couldn't get my real estate license. I was told, no, I couldn't even get a barber's license.
I'm good enough to buy — I was good enough to buy a car, but not good enough to sell cars. I was good enough to get insurance, but not good enough to sell insurance, right? So, it wasn't just like a moment in time of reentry. It was also, like, just this society saying, OK, come back, but here's — here's this little pocket you have to live in.
And that's the most difficult part. It's like, yes, there is like the housing, the job, the — all this different stuff that you're told you're supposed to get. But, then, when you try to get those things, you are limited, and that's extremely difficult on your mental health.
Which brings me to my question for you, Vanessa.
Is this a priority for the Biden administration? And, if so, what are the long- and short-term goals of remedying some of the issues that Dr. Middlemass and Jay have mentioned?
Vanessa Chen, Special Assistant to the President for Criminal Justice: Let me be clear that President Biden has consistently reaffirmed his belief in redemption, rehabilitation, and reintegration.
I think that, when we talk about reentry, to the extent that we're talking about all of these interlocking, invisible barriers, and very visible barriers, President Biden is clear that we need to have a whole-of-government approach, in providing a holistic solution and a holistic way of addressing, reducing, and removing those barriers.
Because, to the excellent points that have been raised, points that our administration has heard in our listening session with formerly incarcerated individuals, with nonprofits, and intermediaries who work with them, with their communities, and their families, unless we're addressing issues related to housing, food, gainful employment, with the opportunity for continued advancement and mobility, and providing all of those structural supports, we're not doing what our returning citizens need us to do for them.
Keesha Middlemass, Howard University:
Yes, may I just respond, because this will capture what Jay and Vanessa have said, is, those invisible barriers are policies.
They're not some random decision being made by bureaucrats, but they're local, state and federal policies that purposely restrict people with a felony conviction. Think about running a prison, everything from HVAC, to landscaping, to food prep, to medical, to the idea of painting and learning how to do plumbing.
And people do that inside, men and women, when they're incarcerated. They become experts inside doing it. It's a cost-effective move from prisons. And they then have the skills to do that when they exit.
But these invisible barriers are literally written into policies and laws that prevent people from gainful employment, from housing.
I'm you did — let's level-set.
I took a plea deal; 98 percent — my research director is in the audience, so you might — so, 95 percent — let's say 90-plus percent of people with criminal records like myself, we took a plea deal, right? So, we sat down. And we did the crime. We are literally saying, OK, I'm going to do my time. We got a deal.
Most people take a plea deal, right? Now, on that plea deal, it's a plea sheet. And they tell you the amount of time you're going to do. I got seven years. They tell you if you got any strikes. I got two strikes. And tell you, like, your restrictions. You can't own a gun. And that's it, right? You can't own a gun. You can't get proximate to the victim.
There's a few things they tell you. Nowhere on that do they tell you about these collateral consequences that are triggered after you get out. So, something about these 40,000 legal restrictions, 50 percent are employment-related. Most of them are lifetime bans.
So, not only can I — I can't access that part of the economy, but I can never adopt a kid. I can never adopt a kid. I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. I cannot volunteer at their kids' school. They had volunteer shortages because of COVID.
When I got the form to volunteer, that big question, have you ever been convicted of a felony? I can't even volunteer at my own kids' school. We just bought a house. I can't — I can't even join the HOA, right? I can never coach my son's little league team. I can't ride on the bus with him to field trips.
So it's not just about, right, the economy. It's about my humanity. It's about the humanity of the people. At some point in time, we have to say, is this about just checking a box and getting people back to work? I have a job. But it's about my humanity.
But I love the term returning citizens. I love Desmond Meade. Shout-out to Desmond Meade and the whole Florida Rights Restoration Coalition that coined that term. But how are we even citizens? How am I a full citizen if I'm locked out of the economy, I'm locked out of my society, and I'm locked out of my child's life?
This is about the humanity and the soul of this country. It's not just about reentry.
And you can watch the full panel discussion and more stories from our Searching For Justice series on our Web site.
Watch the Full Episode
Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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