SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
COVID-19 is causing prisons to send people home early. In normal times, those newly released would often head to their local library for help to find housing or a job. But many libraries, at least their physical locations, are now closed. And as Sally Herships reports, that means those who help with prison reentry are having to get creative.
SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: In 1993, Lee and Dennis Horton were sent to prison. Bill Clinton was president. "Sleepless In Seattle" was in the theaters. People didn't really use cell phones. They just walked down the street and looked at each other. Now, the brothers are in their 50s. After spending a quarter century in prison, they were just released.
LEE HORTON: We went into a Burger King. We went in there to try this Impossible burger, and you had to go up to the kiosk. And I didn't know how to work the kiosk. We didn't know how to do it. So we left.
HERSHIPS: Inside prison, the Horton brothers were peer support counselors. They helped others. But Lee says when he got out, he didn't know how to send a text. Imagine trying to write a resume or to make an appointment to get a COVID vaccine. Now he needs help. Before the pandemic, odds are he would have walked into a library to get it. Libraries have free computers, free classes in how to use them and Wi-Fi. And in prison, libraries are known as safe, welcoming places. Peggy Cadigan works with New Jersey Public Libraries. She says the formerly incarcerated stream into libraries when they get out.
PEGGY CADIGAN: You don't have to show an ID. Nobody asks why you're there. But if you need help getting your email address, looking for a job, people are there to help you.
HERSHIPS: New Jersey Public Libraries offers a program called Fresh Start. It provides help to the formerly incarcerated, everything from training in how to make a FaceTime call to compiling resources for job fairs and food banks. Last year, between March and just a few months later, more than 100,000 people returned home from prison. That's three and a half times more than the year before. At the same time, Fresh Start has had to go virtual, which brings us back to the problem of technology and access again. So some social workers have tried meeting outdoors, like in a public park, but that can cause another problem. Nicole Warren is a social worker with Fresh Start. She says her clients are worried they'll be overheard.
NICOLE WARREN: In some cases, friends, neighbors don't know that the person is even away in prison. So the family has kind of told a story that they're away at college or away working. And there is some shame and embarrassment even for the incarcerated person that that is where they have been.
HERSHIPS: But Warren says the biggest problem has been getting the word out, letting those recently released from prison know they can still get help from the library. Last year, clients would often just drop by, maybe five on a good day. Now, Warren says it's more like five a week. Fresh Start is trying to get the word out. The program has shiny, new turquoise billboards hung at train stations, as well as ads on buses with a 1-800 number in white letters. Jondhi Harrell is program manager at Fresh Start. He says reentering society is far more complicated than many realize. People coming home need help. He knows firsthand.
JONDHI HARRELL: I was a bank robber, you know, which was a lot of disappointment. It's a lot of folks who saw my potential and like, why are you robbing banks? You know, why you choosing to be a gangster when you could be so many other things?
HERSHIPS: Harrell says everyone who's been incarcerated has experienced trauma, and their families have, too. He says in addition to providing computer and tech training, the program also has social workers. A critical part of what Fresh Start does is working with the newly released to help them rebuild relationships when they come home.
HARRELL: When I first came home, one of the questions my second daughter asked me is, can we depend on you to stay home? Or are you going to leave us again?
HERSHIPS: Harrell says for now, he and the program's therapists are doing most of this counseling over the phone. He looks forward to the day when New Jersey's libraries can fully reopen. In prison, he says anyone who wants to gain knowledge or try to change their life - eventually, they find their way to the library. Sally Herships, NPR News.
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