On the day David Hudgens was released from jail for the last time, staff dropped him off at a Metro stop in suburban Northern Virginia. He didn’t have a Metro card. He didn’t have money. He had nowhere to stay.
But he had to get from the Metro stop to a shelter. So he found a bus driver standing outside on his break, and confided in him that he had just been released from jail. He asked if the driver would be willing to give him a ride.
“Of course I had burned all my bridges,” said Hudgens. “Just the shame of asking the driver, ‘can I ride for free?’ because I had no money. Just basic transportation.”
That bus driver gave him a ride, but could take him only as far as the next bus where he would have to transfer. He relied upon the kindness of a second bus driver, too, to get to the shelter in Fairfax County, Virginia.
From the shelter, it was a few miles’ walk to everywhere he needed to go — the probation office, Social Security office, places where he could apply for jobs.
“When I was in the shelter and walking out there on a hot sunny day, three miles to Social Security, there were thoughts,” Hudgens said. “I can do just a little criminal activity. Get some money. And I’m just thankful that I didn’t.”
It might have been easier to commit a small crime than not to, if Hudgens hadn’t been particularly resolved this time to change. He had been in and out of jail and prison for more than two decades and decided this was the time he would end the cycle. But any preparation behind bars for life on the outside hadn’t sufficiently accounted for those first few hours, and those first few days, when he just had to find a way to get by.
These first hours can be among the most vulnerable for many of the 10,000 returning citizens released from U.S. prisons and jails every week. In Northern Virginia and elsewhere, inmates walking out of prison or jail alone are slapped in the face with the immediate urgency of navigating transportation, shelter, food, and other basic needs.
“Just not having a plan, not having a place to be. You gravitate toward survival,” said Katy Steinbruck, director of programs for Offender Aid and Restoration of Arlington (OAR), a reentry nonprofit in Northern Virginia. “And that makes you vulnerable. There are definitely people on the streets who are gonna take advantage of that. And then boom, you’ve done all this work pre-release to reduce somebody’s risk and it skyrockets the second they step away from the facility. How is that ensuring public safety?”
“When things start going wrong, typically they started going wrong right away,” Steinbruck said. “And if things start going wrong initially, that places you in a really high-risk category.”
High risk for committing new crimes and ending up back behind bars. High risk for ending up homeless, or substance dependent, or back in whatever place the individual was before they went to prison or jail.
The problem of what to do with someone when they’re released from prison or jail isn’t new. In an ideal scenario, inmates are released to a family member, a friend, or a facility designed to help that person. They’ve also been prepped for their release with a plan that addresses the most fundamental hurdles of securing housing and clothing, meeting with their probation officer, and meeting their medical needs. Most states, including Virginia, have some form of directive that calls on prison and jail staff to try to develop a home plan for an inmate that at least considers these factors. And conventional wisdom is that the majority of individuals in most places are released with somewhere to go, with some transportation assistance, alleviating at least a portion of the initial stress of release.
But there are a lot of exceptions and caveats. In one of the only case studies available on the first 30 days after release, 13 of 66 New York inmates interviewed expected to go straight to a shelter after release. And those inmates were seven times more likely to abscond from parole during that month, the Vera Institute for Justice found in 1999. A 2004 Urban Institute study in Baltimore found that among those released from jail, one-third did not report having a place to live on release.
Just the shame of asking the driver, ‘can I ride for free?’ because I had no money.
Even those who register a technical “home” are often released alone, or without the support that is assumed to come with that home. The Vera Institute study found that 50 out of those 66 inmates re-entered the community alone, before some ultimately found their way to a home.
These first few hours are just one tiny component of the process known as reentry. Reentry can last a lifetime, and encompasses everything from education and counseling while in prison, to the lifelong hurdles of finding housing and employment after release. An increasing number of lawmakers have at least recognized the significance of reentry to addressing a bloated U.S. criminal justice system, if not supported reforms.
But in the scope of this sweeping issue, these first few hours and days haven’t gotten much of the attention. And with a prison population increase of 500 percent in 40 years, there is a particularly direct correlation between the resources behind bars and the resources for release.
A 2008 Urban Institute policy document advising states on release planning explained, “While a comprehensive, holistic approach to reentry planning — addressing the needs of incarcerated persons from the moment of admission through the months following release — is clearly the ‘gold standard’ toward which the field is progressing, a critical step in this process that has until now received relatively little attention deals with the preparation of an inmate for the hours and days immediately following his or her release from prison.”
“There’s not a lot of literature on this that I’m aware of or perhaps not even enough conversation,” said Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If you don’t get those [first days] right you don’t get a chance to get the rest right.”
Lee walked across the street to an emergency winter shelter when he left Arlington County jail a year and a half ago. The 40-year-old, who asked to be identified only by his first name, had been behind bars for 18 years by the time of his release, at several different facilities. And a lot had changed between 1996 and 2014.
“When I came home I was terrified,” he said. The phones were different. Transportation was different. And “everything was fast.”
He didn’t know how to get around. Like many former inmates in Northern Virginia, Lee found a resource for access to free Metro cards at OAR.
If you don’t get those [first days] right you don’t get a chance to get the rest right.
OAR has found that transportation is one of a number of unmet needs for many recently released inmates, and they give Metro cards to individuals who participate in their counseling, training, and other programming. But the problem is larger than money for a Metro card. They find that inmates come out with an utter lack of guidance on how to get from point A to point B.
In the Vera Institute study, for example, one woman “who had been incarcerated for several years and who had no one to meet her described her embarrassment when a bus driver snatched her farecard out of her hand and swiped it for her because she did not know how to use it.” Anecdotes like this are typical for individuals who have spent time in an institutionalized environment.
OAR’s Steinbruck said she had a revelation about the need to shift their reentry programs when she received a written account from a client released from a prison in Greenville, Virginia. After ten years in prison, the client told her he was dropped off in the suburb of Springfield with enough money to take a bus to the center of Old Town Alexandria, but not to the location of Probation and Parole.
Toting three huge boxes he couldn’t carry himself, he moved the boxes ten feet at a time all the way to his destination.
“So this was the plan? This is how you come out after 10 years?” Steinbruck said. “He couldn’t have been dropped off at probation? Really? I was kinda shocked. And I’ve been doing this a long, long time.”
Like most states, the Virginia Department of Corrections does have a long list of rules regarding inmate reentry and release. This includes establishing some “reentry case plan,” which identifies needs of the inmate, such as drug or health treatment, work goals, and self-improvement. That plan also must include a “home plan,” which means an address where that individual will live after being released. But DOC rules impose the burden on the inmate of identifying a friend or relative to live with, and if they do not do so, they are left to their own devices unless their counselor happens to place them in one of the state’s “Community Residential Programs,” akin to halfway houses but far less common in Virginia.
DOC rules also state that staff are tasked with helping eligible inmates begin the application process for federal and state benefits, and with arranging transportation for inmates. The DOC’s Scott Richeson said inmates are given a ticket for transportation to anywhere in the state if it’s part of their home plan, with a cap on cost.
These rules don’t apply to the many more inmates who are released from jails run by the county rather than prisons, such as Hudgens. At the jail level, each county may develop its own policies for reentry. And Richeson, the Virginia Department of Corrections’ own head of reentry, acknowledged that “most jails are not set up for reentry.” Jails typically hold inmates for a shorter duration, but many inmates spend a year, or several years, or multiple consecutive stints, in jails. Some 42 percent of inmates locked up for a state offense were released from a jail rather than a prison in fiscal year 2014, according to the DOC.
They lock us up in the name of public safety but then they release us and at that point we’re more of a menace than we were when we went in.
A 2004 Urban Institute study of release from Baltimore jails found that just 14 percent were given a “bus ticket or other money for transportation by the Division of Correction at the time of their release,” in part perhaps because most inmates were being released to somewhere within the city.
Still, policy experts say the problems with release planning come not just from a lack of rules but a lack of individualized attention.
“I think a huge piece is not just a specific thing like, ‘oh, this person didn’t have a ride so let’s make sure everybody has rides,’” said Steinbruck. “Let’s have a transition plan. Let’s meet with people post-release.”
Commenting in the Vera Institute report, one staff member for the Minority Task Force on AIDS observed the extraordinary difference in greeting inmates upon their release. “Those who go home first, I never see them. But those who come with me straight to the office, we keep.”
The study noted, “A clear way to influence people is to intervene immediately and directly, to actually meet them as they step off the bus or exit a facility. Yet we found that most people leaving prison and jail — fifty out of the 66 we interviewed on release — re-enter the community alone.”
Steinbruck recognized that the burden to deal with individuals like her letter-writing client can’t fall entirely on the state Department of Corrections, given the volume of individuals passing through the criminal justice system. She said when she raised the problems she had observed with the DOC, their reaction was, “We have mass incarceration. Do you know how many people are getting out?”
Likewise, the DOC’s Richeson credited OAR as a crucial resource. “That’s why OAR exists, to help folks at the point of reentry,” she said. “So it sounds like if they’re seeing these people it’s working.” In fact, OAR is one of nine organizations to receive funding for their work before and after inmate release from the Virginia Department of Justice Services.
But Richeson clarified that she views anecdotes like Steinbruck’s as an exception and not representative of the state DOC’s efforts as a whole: “A few individuals are walking down the street with their boxes but that’s not the common typical scenario.”
Adryann Glenn’s original home plan was to live with his mother when he was released from state prison in Virginia. But that plan was rejected because she lives in public housing and individuals with drug charges are not allowed to live there. So his friend picked him up and hosted him at her home in Alexandria, Virginia. Staying on her couch wasn’t ideal, but it was the most stable part of his release.
“I had no clothes. No food. No money. I didn’t get any transportation money until I saw OAR like a week later,” he said. Glenn felt he was worse off than when he entered prison, rendering him vulnerable to doing something wrong.
“They lock us up in the name of public safety but then they release us and at that point we’re more of a menace than we were when we went in,” he said.
Before Glenn went to jail he had money from selling drugs. But he didn’t have any when he got out. Prisons encourage savings accounts, but even inmates who work get paid just cents per hour, and their savings accounts don’t accrue any interest.
“I sleep like four or five hours a day,” said Glenn, who now works as a barber and, 18 months after his release, is still sleeping on his friend’s couch. “Guys don’t know what it’s like when they get out. They don’t know how tough it’s really gonna be … Most guys I know they already went back to prison.”
It was his friend, Hudgens, who told Glenn about resources at the Department of Rehabilitative Services. There, he sat down with a counselor who advised him on getting his cosmetology license, since he had experience as a teen cutting hair. “I don’t wanna do hair for my living. But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Lee, who started out in a shelter, is now like many low-wage workers in America, working one-off jobs whenever he can, in addition to his regular position at a fast food restaurant, just to afford his rent for one room. He gets up early every morning to play soft music and relax his mind before facing the strain of life with a record. “When the lights are out and nobody’s looking and the music is off I still cry,” he said. “The times when it doesn’t seem like it’s bearable it seems like there’s always a way to come through.”
It is this long-term struggle that has been the focus of more reentry research and reform. And for good reason. Even among the many individuals released to family members, studies find that immediate support from family members — if there is any at all — wanes in the months following release, as it becomes clear that the uphill battle to reintegrate into society will be far longer and more intractable than many inmates and families expect:
It is to this end that medium and long-term policies have begun to improve in ways that have also improved the release process. Many states, including Virginia, now require staff to help inmates secure identification cards behind bars so they can access services immediately after release. By the measure of an Urban Institute survey, almost all state prisons now supply inmates with at least a week or two of needed medication post-release.
Some jurisdictions are now developing “pre-release centers,” intended as a place for inmate transition. And a few cities including Los Angeles and New York are experimenting with reentry centers — one-stop shops for immediate assistance. And OAR recently shifted its programs to begin working with inmates months before they are released from jail. Many inmates, Steinbruck says, haven’t even seen a face from the community interested in helping them in years.
Hudgens has made dramatic progress since his release. As a military veteran, he has access to more long-term services than many. He secured veteran housing. He’s a few credits short of his associate’s degree, and having made the Dean’s list, he will now pursue a bachelor’s degree.
But he remembers vividly the moments of his release, when reentry seemed “more like an exit package.”
“I’m gonna be honest,” said Hudgens. “They [prison staff] give you a booklet. It’s not like they just sit down individually. Cause you’ve just got so many people.”
Disclosure: The author of this piece has volunteered with OAR.