On June 29th, staff of the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative’s (ACJC) Re-entry Program delivered celebratory meals to 69 families whose lives have been changed for the better over the past eight years by their participation in the program. The celebration, which occurred in lieu of the annual dinner for new and past graduates, is described by Amy Kroll, Administrator of Re-entry Services at the Allegheny County Jail, as “People celebrating people who have recovered their lives.” Meals were provided by Pittsburgh Community Kitchen, one of the Re-entry Program’s most successful job training and employment providers.
The ACJC Re-entry Program serves individuals who are at medium-to-high risk of re-offending. Services are provided while they are in the Jail’s Re-entry pod and continue in alternative housing and after they return to the community. Community Re-entry Specialists (CRS), under the direction of Ms. Kroll, and Re-entry Probation Officers (POs), under the direction of Adult Probation Supervisor Sabrina Orlansky, prepare those about to re-enter the community by conducting a risk/needs assessment and developing a service plan that may include a variety of classes, groups and individual supports. Prior to and for seven to nine months after release, they help returning citizens find housing, jobs, mental health and substance use treatment, and other necessary resources. Developing a relationship with the individual is an important element of their work, as is reducing the obstacles to community return and decreasing the likelihood of recidivism.
Staff are used to travelling freely between the Jail, the County’s four Community Resource Centers, and individuals’ homes, workplaces and communities, and their work got significantly more complicated when COVID-19 hit. Individuals living on the Jail’s Re-entry pod were moved into the regular population while specialty pods were being repurposed for virus-related needs. Detainers were lifted and about 30% of the jail population, including 39 individuals in the Re-entry program, were released early. No longer able to easily go in and out of the Jail, both teams of Re-entry staff became dependent upon phone and virtual communication with Jail counselors, discharge/release staff, alternate housing providers and community-based probation officers.
Because Ms. Kroll is currently the only Re-entry staff person permitted to work in the Jail (3 days/week), staff’s focus has been on engaging with the returning citizens as soon as they are released or, as Ms. Orlansky put it, when they “smell fresh air.” For those who have transitioned back into the community, great care is taken to ensure that physical distancing protocols are being followed, and virtual meetings/phone calls are held whenever possible. For those still in the Jail, most communications must occur by phone; the Jail plans to accommodate virus restrictions by slowly increasing phone privileges so that those conversations can be held.
Although instructors can no longer enter the Jail to conduct classes (e.g., parenting, relationships, Thinking for a Change, GED, computer literacy, D&A treatment), they are still teaching through the use of homework packets that they drop off outside of the Jail. Ms. Kroll retrieves and distributes the packets to the Re-entry participants and other eligible inmates who are interested in classes and picks them up the following week to return to the instructors, passing them along at a safe distance in the employee parking lot (she also delivers/picks up packets at providers’ offices). Ms. Kroll often answers questions and helps with assignments during the regular visits she makes to the approximately 20 pods in which Re-entry participants are currently residing.
As individuals graduate from the Re-entry program and return to their community, the CRSs and POs help them with family reunification, applying for medical benefits, housing, behavioral health treatment, job training and job placement. The program is able to pay for training and certification and help with job placement for eligible individuals. Unfortunately, the usual skilled training and employment opportunities (e.g., welding, machining, construction, bricklaying, culinary arts through Pittsburgh Community Kitchen) have been less available during the pandemic. While the Re-entry Program typically focuses on supporting people to obtain living wage jobs, staff has been creative in connecting participants with employment opportunities available during COVID, including low-paying service jobs that don’t require a criminal background check. The other employment avenues are slowly beginning to open back up.
With the virus still spreading in Allegheny County, the Jail will have to continuing restricting visitors, so it is unlikely that in-person classes will restart for several months. Meanwhile, the Re-entry program continues to support successful returns to the community, reuniting families and providing another chance at a productive life.