To Help the Formerly Incarcerated, Support Change at the Intersection of Health and Justice


The disparate effects of Covid-19 and police violence on people of color have awakened the philanthropic world in recent months to the grotesque racism undergirding our nation’s health and justice systems. Individuals and institutions have responded by pledging to do more to dismantle structural racism.

For grant makers, that means understanding and acknowledging the overlapping and intertwined nature of our public-health and criminal-legal systems — and how they work together to disproportionately harm people of color. Traditionally, philanthropy has focused on either health disparities or criminal justice, rather than the intersection of the two. But separating these two merely perpetuates structural racism and must stop.

Nowhere is that more evident right now than in the decarceration movement, which has accelerated because of the rampant spread of Covid-19 in jails and prisons. As of September 22, nearly 132,677 people in U.S. prisons had tested positive for the coronavirus — a 6 percent increase over the previous week, according to ongoing tracking by the Marshall Project. With the support of several criminal-justice-focused philanthropies, advocates have successfully pushed for the early release of thousands of incarcerated individuals.

But efforts to get people out of jails and prisons have not included funding to support re-entry into the community, including addressing the sharp health disparities facing incarcerated individuals. An astounding 65-85 percent of all people in jail or prison suffer from a substance-use disorder. Hepatitis C is over 10 times more prevalent in correctional settings than in the larger community. Chronic health problems such as asthma, hypertension, and mental illness are also significantly higher in prison populations.

The vast majority of incarcerated individuals (95 percent) return home, often to communities that lack the care and other supportive resources critical to sustain healthy and productive lives. The rapid decarceration fueled by the pandemic is likely to inflict even more health challenges on these marginalized communities, creating the perfect ingredients for further spread of the virus.

If philanthropists are genuinely committed to antiracism, improving public health, and ensuring justice for all, helping formerly incarcerated people integrate successfully into communities is an excellent starting point. Here are several actions grant makers can take now to connect these priorities and bring about lasting change:

Support re-entry-focused organizations that serve the neighborhoods where low-income people of color live. These are the places incarcerated individuals disproportionately come from and eventually return. For decades, organizations in these communities have provided health and social services to individuals coming home from jails and prisons. Decarceration efforts spurred by Covid-19 have increased demand for their services. Across the country, people are being released into impoverished neighborhoods from jails and prisons with no resources of their own. They lack access to healthy food, health care (including mental-health and substance-use-disorder treatment), affordable housing, and connection to family and supportive networks.

Community-based organizations such as Voices for a Second Chance in Washington, D.C., headed by Paula Thompson (a co-author of this opinion article) are often their only lifeline. Many of the organization’s clients leave jail or prison without even a form of identification — a requirement for services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Medicaid, and housing assistance. Voices for a Second Chance regularly covers the $23 fee clients need to get a copy of their birth certificate and obtain an ID. This cost is rarely funded by grants or contracts because many donors don’t understand that making small investments of this kind on the front end can have a huge payoff, including opening up opportunities for jobs and housing.

This situation is not unique to Voices for a Second Chance or its clients. Many community-based organizations throughout the United States are struggling to meet growing need. Right now, re-entry-focused groups need emergency funds to ensure that people returning home from incarceration can get basics such as soap and other sanitary supplies, medication, food, and a safe place to sleep. And we need donors to trust us to effectively identify and invest these dollars where they will have the most impact.

Seek input from and invest in leaders of color that run groups that provide direct services. Many of us have worked at the intersection of public health, justice work, and systemic racism for a long time — especially those of us working with people involved in the criminal-legal system. We know how these issues are entwined and how to address needs at both the individual and systemic levels. After all, it is our daily work, and the stories of our community members and clients that directly inform the policy solutions others write about. Listen to us.

Involve individuals directly harmed by the system as you decide where to invest your money. We can’t hope to truly dismantle systemic racism or repair the damage done without heeding the voices of those who were harmed for decades by our criminal-justice and health policies. We have all heard the message, but it bears repeating and internalizing: The people who have experienced racism and the inequities of the justice system are often the strongest advocates for policy change because they are the ones closest to the problems. Listen to them.

To repair deep and multigenerational harm to people of color, we need to zero in on disparities at the intersection of health and justice. Community-based re-entry programs for the formerly incarcerated are in that sweet spot. These programs lead to proven and tangible results, including improved health outcomes and reduced crime and recidivism.

As much of the nation embraces the words “Black Lives Matter,” we cannot forget that more than murals, branded statements, and social-media posts are needed to ensure long-term transformative change — we need investments in community-based organizations with the experience and passion to effectively help those with the greatest need.

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