Abstract: Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 for Individuals Leaving Incarceration and Returning Home (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 for Individuals Leaving Incarceration and Returning Home

Friday, January 14, 2022
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Stephanie Kennedy, PhD, Director of Research Dissemination, Florida State University
Carrie Pettus, PhD, Associate Professor, Director of Institute for Justice Research & Development, Florida State University, FL
Tanya Renn, MSSW, MPH
Background and Purpose: Few empirical studies have documented the COVID-19-related experiences of individuals releasing from incarceration and returning home to the community. Further, no studies were identified which explored the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on individuals’ transition from incarceration back to the community after release (i.e., the reentry period). This paper fills this gap by examining the impact of COVID-19, and the COVID-19 restrictions enacted in communities, on individuals’ mental health and coping and how restrictions impacted their ability to access community services and resources critical for reentry success.

Methods: Data were drawn from individuals enrolled in a randomized controlled trial of a behavioral health reentry intervention who released from prison after March 16, 2020 in Midwest1, Midwest2, and Southeast state. Data were collected using the “COVID-19 Questionnaire for Correctional Populations,” (CQCP) a screening tool designed specifically for use with individuals releasing from incarceration and returning home during the pandemic. The CQCP includes both closed- and open-ended questions. The current analysis focused on qualitative questions which explored participants’ emotional reactions to COVID-19, coping skills, and how their lives were affected by COVID-19 restrictions after release from incarceration.

Three hundred and twenty-nine individuals responded to the CQCP; the current analysis is based on a random selection of 100 individuals stratified by state. Participants were 38.6 years old on average, 87.5% male, and 12.5% female. They identified as 49.5% Black/African-American, 36.8% White, 9.7% Multi-racial, and 2.1% as another racial identity. Interviews were conducted between April 14, 2020-April 25, 2021 via telephone/videoconference within 45 days of an individual’s release. Responses were coded thematically and analyzed by independent coders using the principles of grounded theory and an inductive approach to qualitative analysis.

Findings: Analysis revealed several prominent themes. Many participants highlighted feelings of isolation as they released home, especially those released in spring/summer of 2020. Participants also broadly expressed psychological distress, depression, and anxiety related to their reentry. Feelings of distress were often linked to community restrictions which limited individuals’ ability to access government offices to gain necessary identification for employment, food, and medical benefits. Additionally, participants noted how the job market had changed dramatically with greater community unemployment and more competition for employment from individuals without conviction histories. Other participants described their struggles to find and secure housing (even in shelters) and to use public transportation based on capacity restrictions and increased demand. Accessing behavioral health treatment was a challenge noted by some, with waitlists and closed offices decreasing accessibility. Some participants, however, noted benefits associated with attending behavioral health treatment, probation/parole meetings, and court dates virtually.

Conclusion and Implications: Although there is a national conversation about the impact of COVID-19 on the incarcerated, little attention has been given to those releasing home. While releasing individuals experience similar COVID-19-related challenges as other community members, their experience is amplified as formerly incarcerated individuals. Individuals often leave prison with nothing, making coping with the pandemic exponentially harder. Results from the current analysis support developing and expanding community-based service supports to ensure individuals have successful reentry.