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Hundreds are being released from jail during the coronavirus pandemic. But where are they going?

They’re returning home to a straining network of reentry supports and halfway houses wary that any new admission from the jails poses a risk of spreading the deadly virus.

Faith Bartley, a resident of Why Not Prosper?, carries donated food to be distributed to neighbors. On the right is Shakeyma Hunlay, who was released from jail after a year when the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund paid her bail.
Faith Bartley, a resident of Why Not Prosper?, carries donated food to be distributed to neighbors. On the right is Shakeyma Hunlay, who was released from jail after a year when the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund paid her bail.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Shakeyma Hunlay has never been convicted of a crime, but she spent a year in a Philadelphia jail because she didn’t have $5,000 for bail.

Then, in late April, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the jails crept toward 200, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund came up with the cash to release her. They even gave Hunlay a ride home.

But when the petite 25-year-old knocked on the door of her grandfather’s house, she realized she’d been released to a whole new set of problems: “My family moved. I don’t know where they moved to. I don’t have anybody’s number.”

Hunlay was homeless, with no photo ID and no job, in the middle of a pandemic.

At a time when prisoners are being released in unprecedented numbers — including more than a thousand from Philadelphia jails — they’re returning home to a straining network of reentry supports. Those include employers that have closed their doors, treatment providers that have moved online despite a gaping digital divide, and halfway houses wary that any new admission from the jails poses a risk of spreading the deadly virus.

Those providers that remain are working double-time, equipping people with phones and laptops for virtual job training and therapy, laying out thousands of dollars to secure extra transitional housing, and haggling with prospective employers about whether, in lieu of a photo ID, a prison mugshot will do.

And, where gaps remain, community members are stepping up.

"We can’t just sit out here while people are dying,” said LaTonya Myers, a volunteer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, who has been meeting people at the prison to give them donated bags filled with toiletries and gift cards, masks and hand sanitizer.

Since the sheriff’s office is limiting its transport service, she enlisted Brian Watson — a formerly incarcerated entrepreneur who in normal times runs a van service from the Frankford Transportation Center to the jail — to drive those who are released to recovery houses or transitional housing. On the way, she tries to find out their needs, and fill them in on the current public-health guidelines.

» READ MORE: Lockdown diaries: During the pandemic, prisoners are stuck in cells 23 hours a day

Myers and Watson were the ones who picked up Hunlay from jail in late April, then watched her trudge dejectedly back to the van from the house that had been her grandfather’s.

So, Myers called the Rev. Michelle Simmons, the energetic leader of the East Germantown reentry provider Why Not Prosper?, which has taken in nine women from Riverside Correctional Facility during the pandemic.

“Anybody coming from anywhere right now is risky,” said Simmons, who has become a zealous distributor of gloves, masks and sanitizer, and has placed decals marking six-foot zones in front of her building. “I’m willing to take the chance and trust God, and take their temperatures, and trust the [social workers at the jail] to communicate transparently.”

Simmons is keeping three of her 25 beds open in case a partial quarantine is necessary. She’s also in negotiations for another building to add 10 more beds — recognizing a growing need for transitional housing and dwindling options.

Housing is the foremost challenge for reentry right now, said Jeffrey Abramowitz, executive director of JEVS Reentry Services. Some people coming out of the jails were unable to get into shelters because they had not been quarantined long enough, he said.

And, even as some entry-level jobs are opening up, in fields such as warehousing and food distribution, getting to those jobs during the pandemic is not always possible.

Last Monday "was the first day one halfway house reopened and allowed people to go out,” he said. “We had a few people that lost opportunities because they couldn’t get out of the halfway house.”

Providers are getting creative. JEVS organized van pools for those who had no easy way of getting to work, given SEPTA’s skeletal service schedule.

» READ MORE: SEPTA’s ‘lifeline service’ can mean a grueling commute for essential workers

Treatment providers are offering telehealth, and in some cases delivering medication-assisted treatment to the recovery houses.

And Why Not Prosper? set up a reentry hotline, fielding about 10 calls a day from women looking for diapers, for help getting an ID, for methadone.

Luz Acevedo, 43, who was released from jail in April, said staying at Why Not Prosper? has helped her attain her longest stretch of sobriety in 28 years — with help from suboxone and tele-treatment. She has a roommate, making social distancing mostly theoretical — but it feels safer than jail.

Acevedo is eager to work, but is still waiting for her birth certificate, the first step to getting a state identification card.

“I just got my mugshot from prison,” she said. “I look terrible. I was like, 'Oh my God, they will not hire me with that face!”

» HELP US REPORT: Are you a health care worker, medical provider, government worker, patient, frontline worker or other expert? We want to hear from you.

Organizers have been lobbying the city for help. Reuben Jones, a member of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and head of the group Frontline Dads, advocated for 14 people who were authorized for release into tele-treatment, pending housing, to be permitted to stay at one of the hotels the city is using as quarantine sites.

“People sitting in jail because they didn’t have somewhere to go was unconscionable,” he said. After the city turned him down, he came up with about $5,000 to rent apartments so they could be released. To Jones, it’s a question of public safety.

“If you’re coming out of prison, you’ve obviously been exposed, so it’s in our best interest to provide some safe shelter for them,” he said.

None of the solutions is perfect, acknowledged Maurice Jones, whose job-readiness program, PAR Recycle Works, had to furlough its entire workforce of formerly incarcerated people. He’s still providing mentoring, referrals and resources, and helping his former employees sign up for Instacart gigs, Amazon warehouse work, or jobs at ShopRite.

“It’s fast-tracked, faster than we ever would have pushed anyone out there into the workforce,” he said.

Yet, the Defender Association of Philadelphia noted that fewer than 1% of those released since April 7 have been rearrested.

Keir Bradford-Grey, the city’s chief public defender, attributes that to the work of the Pre-Entry Coalition, which the defender and partners launched last year with the goal of safely bringing more people home pretrial, with the supports they need to succeed. Now all of that planning has been put into action at a time when compliance-based supervision models, such as probation and electronic monitoring, have been largely offline.

“The community has responded to make our city safer at a time when we’re trying to release more people,” she said. “This is a big deal, in that this works.”