SPECIAL REPORT: Prisoners face uncertainty when paroled during the pandemic

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Arkansas releases more than 900 inmate early due to COVID-19 in prisons.

Fayetteville, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — More than 900 state inmates have now been approved for early release due to COVID-19 spreading in prisons. But with that many people on parole all at once, resources are stretched thin.

Drug possession landed John Hendon at The Cummins Unit just before an outbreak of COVID-19.

“You didn’t really want to be around nobody but you can’t really go anywhere,” Hendon said.

It was the state’s first major outbreak at a prison.

“I think the guards were trying but they didn’t know what to do because the guy above them didn’t know what to do,” Hendon said.

He says meals were delayed so much, he had to go 24 hours between eating at one point. Hendon was part of a group of inmates helping create masks for everyone. But he could not go to work.

“We couldn’t even go to work to make face masks to help out because you know, I guess we were quarantined, but there were 60 people,” Hendon said.

Source: Arkansas Dept. of Health, July 23

There have been more than 4,600 cases of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. More than 950 of those were at Cummins. When that number reached about 400, Hendon said he got the news.

“They’re like, go pack your stuff. I’m like nuh uh. Are you sure you got my number right?” he said with a laugh as he recalled being told he was granted early release.

He is one of 907 non-violent offenders approved for early release due to the spread of COVID-19. But the state cannot just release hundreds of inmates. First, they need a parole plan. Part of that plan is a place to live. That is where Returning Home comes in.

“Food, clothing, jobs, mental health services, and housing,” Returning Home executive director Nick Robbins said.

The non-profit gives parolees a transitional home for 90 days. The program has 67 beds. That is no where near enough to meet the demand.

“Right now, on average we’re accepting 11% of the applications that come to us,” Robbins said.

And that was before the decision to release the 907 inmates.

“When that happened, we actually expanded, our residential provider, Phoenix Recovery, expanded their beds by 17%. So you know, right when donations go down we decide to ramp things up,” Robbins said.

“It is just heartbreaking because you know all these people are being released and all of these non-profits that would normally be there to help are struggling themselves.”

Nick Robbins, returning home executive director

But the other services Returning Home offers like jobs, mental health care and food, did not expand. Those are on hold as the virus forced their partners to furlough staff and scale back. So parolees in need are getting turned away.

“Just this week I got this message from a guy, and he goes “Are you open?” and I go, ” no, I’m sorry. Is there something I can do online?” he sent a thing, he goes, “But I need you the most right now.” and it is just heartbreaking, because you know all these people are being released and all of these non-profits that would normally be there to help are struggling themselves,” Robbins said.

Source: Dept. of Corrections

A lack of these services leads to a high number of parolees ending up back behind bars. An Arkansas Department of Corrections study released just this year shows of the 10,629 inmates released in 2015, half were back in prison within three years.

In a 2018 survey of Arkansas parolees who wound up back in prison, 60% said employment opportunities was the most needed resource. For another 15% it was housing.

“When you get out of prison tomorrow, you don’t even have a place to live, to quarantine, to even file for unemployment because you weren’t employed. It’s very sad and very difficult,” Robbins said.

Hendon, like a lot of Arkansans right now, has not found work. But he does have a bed. He paroled to his daughter’s house, a much better option than prison.

“It’s something I wouldn’t wish on nobody,” Hendon said.

For now, he’s happy to be healthy and spending time with his four grandkids.

“I just can’t be any happier and I’m never going back.”

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