(The Center Square) – While no inmates in Tennessee have been released early because of the COVID-19 pandemic, inmates released and re-entering the community during a global pandemic and economic shutdown have faced unique challenges.
“Folks were getting out of prison to a kind of a wasteland; everything was closed,” said Bettie Kirkland, CEO of Project Return, a nonprofit in Nashville.
Project Return is a nonprofit that serves newly released inmates, serving food, providing resume and job counseling and mock interviews, and assisting with housing. The organization was serving about 500 people when COVID-19 hit middle Tennessee.
“Immediately, about 75 percent of our people lost their employment completely,” Kirkland said. “The remainder were getting reduced hours and were losing their jobs as the weeks wore on. It leveled a lot of what we were doing.”
As the COVID-19 shutdowns began, the team at Project Return pivoted to providing services outdoors in its parking lot. Instead of driving clients to and from work, Kirkland and her team used the organization’s commuter vans to procure and deliver food to clients in homeless encampments, halfway houses or wherever they were located.
“Whereas we had always been about success, COVID meant that we needed to be about survival,” Kirkland said.
Tennessee has an incarceration rate higher than the national average: 853 incarcerated per 100,000 people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Prisons have accounted for some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in Tennessee.
“We're very aware, and commensurately very vigilant, about the fact that the people who come to Project Return are coming out of the hottest hotspots in the state, and in some cases in the country,” Kirkland said. “We just have to take every possible measure for safety while at the same time fulfilling our mission. And so that's just a part of who we are right now.”
In addition to providing, Project Return also saves taxpayer dollars by reducing recidivism rates among inmates released in Tennessee. The rate of reincarceration among those released from prison nationwide is more than 50 percent. Last year, the rate of reincarceration among Project Return clients was 14.8 percent.
“Room and board at a penitentiary for a year is just under $30,000,” Kirkland said. “We can spend a fraction of that and have that person out here earning money for themselves paying for their own room and board paying taxes.”
Through its efforts, the organization estimates it saved the state $6.3 million in taxpayer dollars on incarceration in 2019.
“It is a reduction of incarceration on the whole,” Kirkland said. “At a mathematical level. It's just a win.”