Released early to thwart Covid-19, ex-offenders confront hunger outside

With welfare offices closed in many states, and service backlogs in some areas stretching for days, ex-offenders on early release are especially vulnerable to hunger, homelessness, and disease.

John Mele left New Jersey’s Ocean County Jail in late March with nothing but his street clothes, a dead cellphone, and a bus ticket north to Lyndhurst. State officials had granted him and almost 1,000 other inmates early releases in order to protect them from coronavirus. 

But once outside, Mele had nowhere to go. He had no money, no possessions, no ID, and no plan for getting them. A brawny ex-construction worker with a thick, north Jersey accent and two half-sleeves of tattoos, he also harbored little hope of finding work or an apartment at the height of a pandemic. 

Instead—like an unknown but growing number of ex-offenders, released hastily from jails and prisons in at least a dozen states since March 16—Mele now finds himself adrift in an altered world where he can’t work, can’t lean on his family and friends, and has struggled to obtain basic federal benefits. 

“I told them, ‘you know—I’m going to be homeless.’ And they said ‘good luck to you.’”

He needs those resources to buy food—as do thousands of other ex-offenders across the nation. 

Advocates have cheered the movement to release low-risk inmates in response to the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus. But with welfare offices closed in many states, and service backlogs in some areas stretching for days, many now fear these vulnerable people will face hunger or homelessness in addition to disease. 

It’s not just early-release inmates who are at risk, either: Everyone completing a jail or prison sentence now—and there are over 600,000 such people each year—will potentially face long delays to access food and shelter. 

“I was wishing I’d get out,” Mele said. “But then also, damn, I hoped I wouldn’t get out, because I had nothing to go out to. I told them, ‘you know—I’m going to be homeless.’ And they said ‘good luck to you.’”

With welfare offices closed in many states, and service backlogs in some areas stretching for days, many now fear these vulnerable people will face hunger or homelessness in addition to disease.

iStock/romeocane1

As it has for other vulnerable communities—undocumented immigrants, low-wage workers and people of color among them—the Covid-19 pandemic has both exposed the scale of the challenges facing ex-offenders and further exacerbated them. 

Even under normal circumstances, formerly incarcerated people suffer roughly twice the rate of food insecurity as do people who have never been incarcerated, said Alexander Testa, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who studies the health effects of incarceration. They are also, according to the Prison Policy Institute, almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general population. 

“You see nationwide a lot of jails and prisons starting to release people—which is a good thing, because the disease spreads quickly in prisons and jails,” Testa said. “But what I’m not seeing, and what really concerns me, is that there’s not much discussion on extending resources and support to the people coming out.”

“What I’m not seeing, and what really concerns me, is that there’s not much discussion on extending resources and support to the people coming out.”

Those people are, by and large, eligible for a number of federal benefits, including Medicaid, Social Security, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. While SNAP technically bars drug offenders from receiving benefits, most states have repealed or otherwise rolled back that provision, said Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. 

Federal law also mandates that states accept alternate forms of identification from clients who don’t have a state-issued ID—a common challenge for inmates after release. A handful of state SNAP agencies even permit incarcerated people to apply for benefits prior to their release. 

But that is not the norm, and the process of obtaining alternate IDs from scratch in order to apply for benefits typically involves multiple in-person trips to state welfare offices, employment centers, health clinics and other issuers, said Sydney Reece, an employment associate at California’s A New Way of Life Reentry Project, by email. That red tape has grown more onerous since Covid-19’s impact intensified. 

A handful of state SNAP agencies permit incarcerated people to apply for benefits prior to their release.

Human service and re-entry aid offices in many states are closed. Many ex-offenders don’t know how to apply for benefits online, or don’t have access to the technology to do so, said Rob DeLeon, vice president of programs at Fortune Society, a New York-based re-entry nonprofit.  

Meanwhile, the system itself has been flooded with first-time SNAP applications, delaying the release of benefits for new clients, Bolen said. In Louisiana, local advocates estimate that the state’s current SNAP case backlog could take “at least” 30 working days to resolve. In Massachusetts, daily calls to a benefits hotline spiked so high last week that the state’s welfare office warned system delays posed “a huge access barrier.”

And in New Jersey, where the state has released some 1,000 inmates thus far, with potential plans to release hundreds more, a new emergency hotline for ex-offenders seeking food, housing, and medical treatment has rung “constantly” since late March, said Reverend Bolivar Flores, a chaplain with the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC).

“It’s very difficult for a lot of those people, especially the ones who don’t have state or county ID. It’s hard to get them benefits.”

Food banks and pantries have been similarly inundated: In Newark, New Jersey, a mere four miles from where Mele is now staying, one pop-up soup kitchen sees an estimated 300 to 500 ex-offenders each day. 

“People call and say, ‘I need a place to sleep, I’m homeless, I don’t have money to buy food,’” Flores said. “It’s very difficult for a lot of those people, especially the ones who don’t have state or county ID. It’s hard to get them benefits.” 

Now safe at a Howard Johnson hotel near the Newark airport, Mele also turned to that hotline after his unexpected release on March 24. At the time, he still had three months left to serve on a sentence for burglary and traffic violations. So even after he saw New Jersey’s inmate release plans on TV, he told his girlfriend not to expect him. 

In Newark, New Jersey, one pop-up soup kitchen sees an estimated 300 to 500 ex-offenders each day.

To Mele’s surprise, however, an officer arrived in the bullpen that morning and told him to pick up his stuff. His wallet, he soon discovered, had gone missing from booking. He’d later realize his discharge papers had someone else’s name on them. 

He is able to stay temporarily at the airport motel with the help of a caseworker at the NJRC, who also worked out an arrangement with the state SNAP agency that allowed Mele to obtain benefits without a current ID, said Flores. Every few days, Mele takes a bus downtown and stocks his mini-fridge with foods he can heat in a microwave. 

But Mele said he doesn’t know what comes next: The motel room is only his through the end of April. Last week, New Jersey suspended non-essential construction statewide, severely limiting Mele’s job options. Social distancing also means he can’t safely couch surf with friends or relatives. 

“You can only eat so much in a microwave at a hotel.”

On Facebook, Mele has posted a fundraiser for his living expenses, as well as a livestream of himself meandering around the empty parking lot, planes groaning overhead. 

“You can only eat so much in a microwave at a hotel,” he says in the livestream, between shout-outs to his friends. 

“But, you know, all I got to say to everybody is good luck out there,” he adds. “And I really don’t even believe in luck, man.” 

Caitlin Dewey is a writer and occasional essayist based in Buffalo, New York. Her work has appeared in outlets including The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, Medium’s OneZero and The Washington Post, where she reported on food and agriculture from 2016 to 2018. She can be reached on Twitter or via caitlindewey.com.