Helping formally incarcerated citizens survive the COVID-19 crisis

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I thought I was free when I walked out of prison over 20 years ago. But I quickly learned there’s a second prison manned not by armed guards, but by social stigma and legal restrictions.

Rebuilding a life is never easy, but the current public health crisis has compounded the issues faced by returning citizens. They are already subject to more than 44,000 legal restrictions on things like where they can live and what kind of work they can do, and two-thirds will be arrested again within three years nationwide. Now they are being ordered to shelter in place —unable to complete some of the most basic tasks for starting over. Without swift action from lawmakers, we run the chance of seeing even more disappointing reentry outcomes.

More than a decade after my release, my criminal record kept me from finding a job. Out of options and needing to provide for my family, I became an entrepreneur. In 1999, I started what would become Soteria Community Development Corporation, an organization designed to reach men who are re-entering society, teach them life skills, and help them rebuild themselves and their communities.

The COVID-19 crisis calls for a bold legislative response that builds on positive steps already taken by Congress. That response should start with increased reentry funding.

Many previously incarcerated people’s return to the community is marked by unemployment, addiction, and housing insecurity. COVID-19’s disruption of labor markets and local and state social services threatens to exacerbate these issues. Reentry service providers can provide the supportive housing, mentoring, and workforce development that returning citizens need, but they’re struggling during this pandemic. In a recent survey, 75% of providers reported suspending services or closing. Half fear a permanent end to operations. I know of some partner organizations that have had to close their doors and others that are running on fumes. Congress must ensure adequate funding for these community institutions to meet urgent reentry needs. Fortunately, Soteria is still doing well, though we may eventually have to cut back on some services.

Some entrepreneurs are also in need of funds. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) denies vital emergency relief to numerous small business owners among the 1 in 3 Americans with a criminal record. Replacing current PPP exclusions with narrowly tailored guidelines that exclude only those with recent fraud convictions would make good use of federal dollars without denying relief to valuable small businesses. While the Treasury Department has reduced some of these barriers through independent actions this month, Congress should fully correct the exclusion guidelines. This can be accomplished by quickly passing Senators Rob Portman and Ben Cardin’s bipartisan, common-sense Paycheck Protection Program Second Chance Act.

Like other Main Street leaders, entrepreneurs with a criminal record face an unprecedented crisis and shouldn’t be excluded from accessing the lifeline they may need to keep their businesses afloat and their staff employed. Unfortunately, I know several entrepreneurs with a criminal record who have had to close their businesses because work dried up following stay-at-home orders and they couldn’t qualify for a PPP loan.

While the pandemic is disrupting reentry, it’s wreaking havoc in our nation’s prisons. Nine of the nation’s 10 largest coronavirus outbreaks are in correctional facilities. As this pandemic escalates, we risk seeing more incarcerated individuals and correctional staff suffer severe medical complications. Expanded use of home confinement made possible through the CARES Act is helping. But Congress should consider if other reforms are needed to expedite decisions on how to responsibly reduce the prison population.

Lawmakers have their hands full with COVID-19-related matters. But investing in reentry efforts and lifting restrictions on entrepreneurs with a criminal record will benefit our communities during this pandemic and the demanding recovery ahead.

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