Jermaine Williams.

Felicia Dixon was coming back from work in late May when the King County Metro bus she was riding stopped in Seattle’s International District. Outside, she could see police blocking the road and protesters in the street; at one point, several officers surrounded a man. As the bus idled, Dixon asked to borrow a cell phone from a stranger. “Who’re you calling?” he asked her.

“I just need to call my family,” she told him. 

But Dixon wasn’t calling her family. Instead, she dialed the number for the Helen B. Ratcliff work release facility, where she was then incarcerated. A staffer there told her to stay on the bus. 

She did, but she worried about being forced to get off. “What if I have [an] interaction with the police?” she remembers asking herself. “I’m still technically an active inmate.… If they run my name, they’re going to see that.” 

In late July, Dixon was placed on electronic monitoring upon her release from Helen B. Ratcliff. She returned to free society at an unprecedentedly tumultuous time in America. Sustained protests against police brutality have prompted a national conversation about racism, including its role in mass incarceration. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has upended society. 

Dixon wasn’t alone in facing an unusual transition from prison to a state of quarantine. Between March and the end of June, over 2,000 incarcerated people were released in Washington. Though many gained their freedom as part of the drive to reduce prison populations out of concern for their health amid Covid-19, advocates say that the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems with incarcerated people’s transition back to their communities, such as finding housing and employment.

David Heppard, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom Project, says that a lot of people were also released without IDs, which made reentry needlessly difficult. “There was this sense of…if we weren’t supporting such a stigmatized population, [getting people identification] wouldn’t be a problem,” Heppard says. “It’s easier to drop the ball on a population that’s already highly stigmatized.”

I interviewed Dixon two weeks before her release date. She was looking forward to getting out, but felt nervous. She had spent over 15 years in prison for passing messages as part of a burglary and attempted murder plot when she was 18. “There’s a deficit in my experience,” she said. “I’ve never sent a text message, I’ve never had a smartphone.” She also hadn’t opened a bank account as an adult, nor used social media since the days of MySpace.

Dixon wondered how the coronavirus would affect her life once she left the work release facility. She could remotely participate in Unloop, an organization that provides training in software development for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. But everyday activities, like going shopping, would be very restricted. “I have personal clothing, but this is all clothes that people have picked out for me.”

She also knew that many of her family and friends would want to see her once she came home. “How do you have gatherings?” she wondered, given the restrictions on large groups.

 

Dixon stayed with a friend near Tacoma after her release in July. Not every formerly incarcerated person has that option. Jaime Hawk, a legal strategy director at the ACLU of Washington, says that finding approved housing has been a major challenge during the pandemic due to expedited releases. The search has even kept some locked up longer, Hawk says.

Those extra days aren’t trivial. Prisons have experienced some of the worst outbreaks in Washington since the pandemic began. This spring, when Jermaine Williams was in prison, he was led to believe that it “was the safest place in the world for us” because the virus was spreading only among those “who were out in the community.” Looking back, Williams wonders if he was deliberately misled. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “However, when I look at the absurd amount of positive cases now among residents in the Washington State Department of Corrections, it leads me to believe there could have very well been positive cases in the system when I was in the system.”

Williams, who has underlying conditions that put him at greater risk for complications of Covid-19, moved into transitional housing after a 25-year sentence that began in his teens for first-degree assault and rape. Following so much time in a highly structured environment, his new living situation was a “humbling” experience. “There’s this idea of being eternally grateful for being free,” he says.

Yet it was an unusual burden to return to the community when resource centers, like the employment assistance organization WorkSource, were closed for in-person visits. And Williams worried about catching the virus himself, which he believed would be particularly dangerous for his immune system. “It was tough. Emotionally, psychologically, physically, it was difficult in a lot of ways,” he says.

While Williams became the director of Freedom Project East, a branch of the organization that offers support for people impacted by mass incarceration, others have struggled to find employment. Jessica Means works for the DOC’s Office of Corrections Ombuds and helps head the women’s reentry shelter program New Connections. She says that the pause in access to resource centers prevented people from working toward their goals once they left prison. 

Compounding that problem, Means, like the Freedom Project’s David Heppard, saw people released without IDs, which kept them from securing work. The process for getting a new ID was confusing, according to Means, particularly early on in the pandemic. “Ultimately, I have seen people who violated and did go back to prison because they couldn’t take those steps [to find jobs],” she says. 

Though some more opportunities have opened up since the beginning of the pandemic, access to jobs is still limited for formerly incarcerated people. Frontline work remains a major avenue of employment, one that currently comes with health risks. Heppard says he is “fearful” about what unemployment will look like later. Though he doesn’t know what the future holds, he says, “history tells me it’s going to be bad.”

Skill development has suffered in the meantime. Sai Lising was released in January after serving a year and a half for charges that included identity theft. She juggled multiple jobs this summer as she waited to begin an intensive carpentry training program; Lising felt ready to begin her career and “start building that foundation.” But the program hadn’t started yet because of Covid-19.

Lising managed to adapt. She kept herself busy with work and her involvement with organizations like the IF Project, a nonprofit that supports people who have been or are currently incarcerated. She compares lockdown to prison, saying that in both situations it’s important to stay active. “You have to find things to keep your mind going,” she says.

 

For Jermaine Williams, opportunities related to and distinct from his Freedom Project East post arrived alongside the challenges he met after his release in May. He says that the recent movement against police brutality impacted his life “amazingly.” An experienced public speaker, he led a rallying cry at a protest and spoke to a crowd of thousands. 

Participation was especially meaningful to Williams because, he says, “on the inside, we spend a lot of time…imagining what it would be like if I was actually out there, able to participate in these things.” The ability to see it for himself and “speak truth to power” was not something he took for granted.

At these events, he says, “people don’t care where you’re from.” Instead, they care about what you’re doing to support the movement. Williams is aware that he has resources that others don’t, which motivates him in his work for Freedom Project. He’s been able to work from home and spend time with his wife, an activist for criminal justice and sentencing reform. He knows that difficulty acquiring housing, employment, and social networks remain huge barriers for people leaving prison. 

“It’s bad enough for the system to throw many of us away,” he says, but then people reenter society only to discover that there are not enough resources for them. He worries that fear of Covid-19 will be turned into a way to target formerly incarcerated people and take opportunities away from them.

“Maybe I’m just an overthinker,” he says. “Or maybe I understand that being in the system as long as I have, I’ve seen a lot of bullshit, and I’ve heard a lot of lies that have been leveraged to make it more difficult for those of us on the inside.”

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