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Addressing the COVID-19 Prison Problem

How VOADV is Helping Individuals Exiting Prison or Jail During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As one of the most densely populated state in the nation, New Jersey has also been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The state as a whole has experienced a high number of COVID-19 cases from its northern most counties all the way to its southern most counties. Sadly, New Jersey also has one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in its prisons and jails in the country. These facilities house large numbers of individuals with chronic diseases and complex medical issues, putting them at greater risk of contracting and spreading novel coronavirus. Unfortunately, this has resulted in many inmates and corrections staff testing positive for the virus and even losing their lives due to the virus.

In an effort to help stop the spread of the virus in both county jails and state prisons, New Jersey began to identify low-risk inmates in those facilities that could be released early. The hope was that these facilities would see a reduction in overcrowding, which would further help curtail the spread of the disease and, most importantly, reduce the number of deaths among inmates and staff.

As an agency who has always provided essential services to this arguably most “difficult to serve” population, Volunteers of America Delaware Valley knew we could be an essential resource for these inmates – ensuring no one was left to face their sudden reentry back into society alone.

VOADV’s Safe Return program continues to be one of the only resources available to inmates, including those who were released during the pandemic. This innovative reentry program offers a wide range of essential services for individuals returning to society within three years of exiting the criminal justice system. The program’s overall goal is to provide inmates with the necessary structure, support and opportunities critical for successful reintegration into their communities.

Currently, VOADV has Safe Return programs based in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, as well as in the city of Trenton. Working collaboratively with state and local correctional facilities, county jails, local law enforcement and other community agencies, Safe Return engages with inmates and then provides them with the personalized guidance they need to transition back into society – from something as basic as hot meals or safe transportation from the jail or prison to emergency shelter beds for those individuals with nowhere else to go and access to a wide network of social services.

“Our goal is to assist these individuals, especially those who have recently exited the jail under parole and are in desperate need of help. From working with the police each day to locate these individuals to deploying outreach to local ‘hotspots” – my staff and I are driven to reach as many of these individuals as we can, despite numerous challenges and obstacles, to make sure we get them the safety and shelter they need,” explains Dasha Brown, Program Director for Atlantic City’s Safe Return program.

However, VOADV’s efforts to assist those returning to society from the criminal justice system does not stop at Safe Return.

During the pandemic, VOADV also worked closely with the New Jersey State Parole Board to provide housing and care for individuals exiting jail or prison system who may have tested positive and/or are recovering from COVID-19. The appropriate housing or recovery location is carefully identified by staff on a case-by-case basis, with special attention placed on the environment best suited for the individual – whether they need to quarantine, recuperate or if they have been displaced entirely due to the pandemic.

“This has been a carefully coordinated effort with Parole and many local contractors and community partners,” explained Kim Love, Director of Specialized Offender Services and the Community Resource Center (CRC) in Camden at VOADV. “Our goal is to find safe locations that are willing and able to receive these individuals, and then safely transition them from correctional facilities, hospitals or halfway homes to places they can receive services and care.”

Through this joint effort with the Parole Board, Kim and her staff have identified quality housing and care providers in both Newark and Jersey City, in addition to beds they have already secured in Camden. In addition to stable housing and care, VOADV is also supplying these individuals with nutritious food and drink, clothing, laundry machines, phones to contact family and friends and access to a number of essential social services.

“We are lucky to be in a position where we can work so closely with Parole and the Department of Corrections to get these individuals the shelter and services they would not have otherwise,” continued Kim. “I am very fortunate to have such a committed team of professionals who understand how important their work is and give it their all each day, both in service to these individuals and in protecting our communities.”

For more information on the many ways VOADV is continuing to serve our clients and protect our staff and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit: www.voadv.org/covid-19