A New Normal

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It was early March and we had spent the whole weekend composing Project Return’s COVID-19 Preparedness & Response Plan. It couldn’t have been more thoughtful and well-intentioned – including the watermark on V1 as “Best Current View” to assure everyone could foresee adaptability – and it adhered to CDC recommendations of distance and sanitization. We paid a team to do another full disinfecting on Saturday, got our Plan into every coworker’s hands on that Sunday evening, then gathered early at the office on Monday morning, corona-ready. But at 8am when it was time to open, there were already 20+ men and women – recently released from prison – standing outside our front door, and the waves of folks kept coming.

The thing is, people getting out of incarceration have always faced nearly insurmountable odds. No money, no ID, no job prospects. No place to live, no family to connect with, no friends they should connect with. No phone, no food, just the clothes they’re wearing. And the volume is high: ~15,000 will emerge from TN penitentiaries this year. At Project Return, we’ve honed a solution, which entails embracing people as fully human, and getting them successfully employed.

The coronavirus, though, has obliterated our approach on both counts – no embrace and no employment – while the volume of the need has overwhelmed us. As the COVID-19 crisis took hold, we at Project Return kept our full operations going for as long as possible. But by mid-March, we had to cut back significantly: no longer visiting prisons and jails, eliminating job readiness classes, and – among the more painful decisions – suspending our employment-creating, award-winning, life-changing social enterprises (PROe and PROPS).

Proximity, always our hallmark, takes different shapes in the midst of a pandemic. At this time, we are delivering very limited services, and staying in connection as best we can (mostly by phone) with the hundreds of people already in our programs. PROe remains suspended. You will still see the Project Return vans on the roads these days, but they are delivering nutritious meals and groceries to our unemployed people, rather than driving them to and from the jobs they’ve now lost due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Project Return will soon again be that propeller of people. But for now, we are palliative care. Our people who were rising in the ranks with employers across the city are now unemployed; our people who were still in their best first job after prison – through PROe – have slipped off that rung; and those individuals who have been released from prison more recently have utterly no hope and no path to success.

In this new normal, we refortified ourselves with the Project Return fighting spirit, and resolved to become something for our people that we had never aspired to be: the unemployment experts! Only to discover that people recently released from prison are being deemed ineligible for such benefits, because they’ve not been employed for a sufficient amount of time over the past four quarters (because, of course, they were imprisoned). To be unemployable, and ineligible for unemployment: the nearly insurmountable has just become practically impossible, and completely inhumane.

We will move forward with the work and resolve of meaningful proximity. We’re creating a new division for PROPS – we now do disinfecting (call me!) – and we are exploring modes of virtual education, for example. For now, though, people getting out of prison are in terrible need. The need is everywhere, but every time I see a COVID-19 news piece about releasing more and more people from incarceration, and there is no apparent consideration of the desperate aftermath of that release, I am reminded of how important it is for Project Return to shed light on the reality of reentry, especially in desperate times.

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