“An Extraordinary Situation”: CASES Facilitates Rapid, Safe Reentry From Rikers During COVID-19

In mid-March, to curb the spread of COVID-19 at Rikers Island, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and the NYC Department of Correction sought a way to rapidly release individuals with limited time remaining on their jail sentences who were assessed as posing a low risk to public safety. Luckily, a robust program to support this kind of release was already in place.

Since 2016, CASES—along with the Center for Court Innovation and the Criminal Justice Agency—has provided supervised release as an alternative to bail/pretrial detention for individuals awaiting trial. Consistent with the needs of many clients served by this CASES Pretrial Services program, CASES expected that the people identified for early release from Rikers during the COVID-19 pandemic would have needs related to unemployment, homelessness, and/or behavioral health.

“It was an extraordinary situation with lots of system stakeholders involved,” said Giles Malieckal, CASES’ Senior Director of Pretrial Services. “We had about 18 hours or so to adapt our Pretrial model, which serves thousands of clients a year and, by design, is a very flexible intervention. Having that framework in place provided a way to get people off Rikers quickly while having a program to support them in the community.”

Late on Saturday, March 20, and early into Sunday, March 21, Rikers began to release people into CASES’ services. As their release was being processed, individuals received a phone from MOCJ staff at the jail, who also provided written directions for each person to immediately call their assigned CASES contact.

“I started getting calls from the new releases around 2:30 AM, all the way until 6 AM that morning,” said Diego Valdez, CASES’ Deputy Director of Pretrial Services. “We were meeting remotely with the program staff all weekend to look at the list of releases, to have the Borough Directors take the lead on the calls, and to get the new releases through program intake.”

Including the first wave of 12 releases enrolled early that Sunday, CASES has now engaged 85 people released from Rikers in response to COVID-19. Jacqueline Dodrill, Team Leader of CASES’ Pretrial Services in the Bronx, said rapid initial engagement is critical to supporting these new clients’ success during and after the program.

“They call me immediately after they’re released,” Jacqueline said. “They just left the Island. They just turned on their phone. They have so much they’re trying to figure out in terms of coming home. From what I can tell, when they’re released, they don’t have a whole lot of information, because it’s happening so fast.”

Jacqueline and other members of the Pretrial team initiate these post-release services by connecting each client with an assigned Case Coordinator to be their primary contact and provider. Due to the pandemic, all services are delivered remotely, with the Case Coordinator conducting daily phone check-ins the first week of the program, twice weekly in weeks two through four, and weekly thereafter. The initial call involves an assessment of client needs and goals, including those related to employment, behavioral health, and housing. This assessment also serves to engage the client in the program, including by identifying and making plans to address urgent needs.

“Really what they’re asking us to do is link these participants to services that can help them stay safe and find success in the community,” Diego explained. “That might mean mental health services or helping them create a resume, supporting them through a job application, preparing them for some type of employment.”

Despite their rapid release and reentry to a city struggling with the pandemic, most of the new releases are thus far successfully meeting program expectations and staying safe in the community. Of the 85 participants referred to CASES, 73% have fulfilled all conditions of their release, including maintaining contact with their CASES Case Coordinator. This rate is likely to increase in the coming days as CASES staff continue to establish clients’ contact information and provide clients with new phones/phone cards. The team also reports that partner providers in the community remain committed to finding ways to help program clients address needs and pursue goals.

“It’s been really cool to see the collaboration, not just in CASES, but across the partner agencies,” Jacqueline said. “You can tell that everyone is trying for this group of people who are leaving Rikers. Even with this major crisis, we’re working to get each of our participants to the best possible situation.”

UPDATE: The first death of an individual detained at Rikers Island was reported Sunday, April 5, 2020. For more information on the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City jails, please see this Legal Aid resource.