The services and supports most New Yorkers typically enjoy access to—from dine-in restaurants to in-person doctor’s visits—have become anything but routine during the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing. But what happens when people rely on this kind of face-to-face interaction to get housing, medication, or everyday necessities like food?
It’s been over two months since the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice came to the city’s three providers of Pretrial Services—CASES, the Center for Court Innovation, and the Criminal Justice Agency—and asked our organizations to quickly develop a plan to get eligible people off Rikers Island to help curb the life-threatening spread of virus in that facility. Since then, our three agencies have successfully created and operationalized the 6-A Early Release program, which has facilitated the early release of 312 people through an innovative adaption of the Pretrial Services model that includes daily phone check-ins and brokered connections to remote support services.
Designing and implementing the program was only the first challenge. The second is making sure these new CASES clients can access the housing, behavioral health, employment, and other programming they need to safely transition from incarceration back to the community in a city whose social service landscape is much less comprehensive than usual.
“The things we once provided for them are more difficult to come by,” said Alexandra Morales, the Director for CASES’ Pretrial Services in the Bronx. “Certain services, because of the whole crisis, are delayed or more complicated. So you must make sure your clients trust you. You have to say, ‘I’ve put everything into place, into order, but it’s delayed.’ But their frustration is clear. We need to be patient and understanding of what they’re going through.”
Building this trust with clients can ensure they feel heard and supported, said Jacqueline Dodrill, a Bronx Pretrial Services Team Leader. But providing this support—which can be as basic as getting clients a snack, normally an easy task—can prove difficult when staff cannot meet clients in person.
“Immediate needs right now are so basic,” Jacqueline said. “We have a participant who is having a lot of food insecurity. We gave him different options of places to go to, but he was apprehensive to leave his apartment during quarantine. We went ahead and sent him an order of groceries to his home. We’re doing small things like that, because we’re so used to building rapport in person—this is one way that they can see we’re here for them.”
[To donate to CASES’ Staying Connected Fund, which is raising money for things like groceries and phones for clients during this time of need, please visit this page.]
CASES staff continuously explore innovative ways to overcome COVID-19-related obstacles. The approach is working: the daily compliance rate for Early Release participants is consistently above 90%. Often, our services must extend beyond clients to their families and support systems. Chelsea Vargas, a Pretrial Services Case Coordinator, said she’s become someone whom clients and their families can vent to while feeling isolated from their usual social circles.
“I called a number trying to reach one of my clients and reached his grandmother, who said he wasn’t there,” Chelsea said. “We stayed on the phone for 30 minutes because she’s completely by herself. Her uncle just died of COVID, and she was scared. That’s what I realized about most of the participants and their families—they actually want to talk to me because they don’t have anyone else.”
This connection with clients’ family members—and helping them navigate all the challenges that reentry from jail encompasses—is critical when it comes to keeping everyone safe and healthy, especially given the myriad stresses of the current crisis.
“Our biggest challenge has been navigating through mental health and substance use needs. It’s very challenging when you don’t see the person face to face, and the family is trying to welcome this person back from incarceration,” said Farydah el-Barkachi, the Director of CASES’ Pretrial Services in Brooklyn. “I think my team has done a great job working to understand and support the dynamic of the entire family.”
When this kind of connection is made, whether through meeting individual client needs or engaging with their support networks, the foundation can be set for long-term success. Regarding the client to whom the Pretrial team sent groceries, Chelsea noted how much more interested he was in programming after first addressing this primary need.
“He apologized for resisting our help at first. ‘I was just hungry,’ he said,” Chelsea said. “Now he’s getting a construction certificate online and will get placed in a job. He’s doing really well. He wanted to go back to prison at first after his sudden release because he had no food, no support in the community. Now everything’s falling into place for him.”