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Housing the Formerly Incarcerated Should Be A Fundamental Right, Especially in a Pandemic

States must fund stable housing for all formerly incarcerated people to neutralize the spread of COVID-19 and create equitable opportunities for social reintegration.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Sociologist Whitney Pirtle has argued the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed that the pre-existing health conditions that afflict marginalized and socioeconomically deprived communities are bound to get worse as the outbreak unfolds. The racial inequities associated with the pandemic have rightfully received amplified attention in recent weeks as data universally shows that Black, brown, indigenous, and Pacific Islander communities across the United States are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.  

Public health experts, U.S. governors, and countless others have been tirelessly calling on the government to mobilize resources to help U.S. citizens and residents fight the virus. And although states are beginning to release—or consider releasing—people from carceral confinement, people are dying at escalating rates in correctional facilities across the country because of denied healthcare access and confinement in unsanitary spaces that violate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards

Although the unsanitary conditions of correctional facilities and the risk of COVID-19 spread should ultimately lead to the release of all incarcerated and detained populations, a critical question remains: Where will people go once they are released?

Ideally, people will be allowed to return “home” if they have a place to return to and it doesn’t pose a health hazard due to COVID-19 exposure. Alternatively, states might elect to allow formerly incarcerated individuals to stay with other relatives or friends as long as that doesn’t compromise the stipulations of their probation and parole or violate social distancing protocol. If neither of these options are available, formerly incarcerated individuals may be left to the streets, running the risk of COVID-19 exposure or rearrest in cities that are taking punitive measures against civilians who are not sheltering in place or without access to stable housing. 

Given these constraints, formerly incarcerated people are more at risk than they are in “normal” non-pandemic conditions. Research has long shown that incarceration has deleterious health consequences that result in formerly incarcerated individuals receiving inequitable access to housing, employment, healthcare, voting, and other community support systems. Racial discrimination in U.S. housing markets is a longstanding issue that is most likely being more acutely experienced in the COVID-19 pandemic, so people who are formerly incarcerated face this additional barrier to their prospects for social reintegration.

That is why it is critical to use the current pandemic to reimagine housing as a fundamental right. Housing should not just be a fundamental right for U.S. citizens, but a guaranteed right for immigrants and residents as well. More cities and states need to adapt the strategy of New Orleans in providing temporary hotel housing for the houseless to provide permanent housing for the formerly incarcerated. The United States has long operated under the fallacious assumption that providing guaranteed housing is an impossible outcome, which is fundamentally not true. 

The case of mass incarceration and recent criminal legal reforms have illuminated two critical insights. U.S. cities and states have shown that they can afford to “house” (detain) anyone they want during a global pandemic, and that there are clear discrepancies in the preferred populations that “should” be unconditionally confined. Yet these same cities and states have also shown that the traditional criminal legal system is a malleable structure. It can evolve when people put their collective energies into making it be so despite facing varying levels of opposition.

If states invested annual expenditures into reintegration instead of incarceration, they would create genuine opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals to survive and thrive. People would not only be able to afford housing but also capable of addressing other critical determinants of their long-term health outcomes. Moreover, they would be better positioned to survive in an economy that is most likely going to exclude them given the fiscal challenges that many organizations who might otherwise hire them are facing. 

Providing guaranteed housing to formerly incarcerated individuals would also reduce their likelihood for rearrest and recidivism associated with being housing insecure, which is a fundamental concern of all parole, probation, and clemency boards. Eliminating the burden for formerly incarcerated individuals to secure and maintain housing, in essence, gives them an unimpeded opportunity to situate themselves as the world fights to survive a pandemic with no immediate cure in sight. 

Some cities and states are going to find the proposal to house formerly incarcerated individuals radical or impractical, but others may already be taking important strides to make this a reality. While it may seem “radical” to propose an under-tested solution to a perennial social problem, COVID-19 is demanding that nations embrace untested solutions to just survive the current pandemic. Eliminating controllable health risks posed by incarceration and detainment practices in the United States is one achievable measure with a seemingly limitless amount of prospective public health benefits. And these are decisions that can be made at the state and local level, though leveraging federal resources to execute proposed interventions is clearly ideal. 

The United States has the world’s highest COVID-19 confirmed death toll. As such, we should be actively doing everything within our power to stop the spread of coronavirus. Releasing all incarcerated and detained populations and placing them in state-funded permanent housing is one viable solution to give our nation a fighting chance at curbing the acceleration of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a matter of public health, housing needs to be guaranteed as a human right extended to everyone in the United States—whether they are documented, incarcerated, or not.

Demar F. Lewis IV is a writer and PhD student at Yale University researching the health consequences of policing, incarceration, and historical racial violence for communities of color.