'Portraits of Justice' was a public art installation by and about formerly incarcerated people, displayed on Philly's Municipal Services Building in 2018

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As the coronavirus pandemic crashed down in Philadelphia earlier this month, Erik Van Zant received a call from a cousin. It was check-in to see how he was holding up under the city’s new stay-at-home order.

“You getting cabin fever yet?” his cousin asked.

Van Zant, 46, looked around his bedroom in West Oak Lane. He had a refrigerator, a laptop and a cold can of soda in his hand. The cat slept at the edge of the bed. There was the window he could open and close to let in a breeze.

The juvenile lifer spent two-thirds of his life in a Pennsylvania state prison for a murder he committed as a teenager. Then his sentence was commuted, and he was released last year.

“Come on, girl,” Van Zant told his cousin, “you know what I’ve been through. This is nothing. This is beautiful.”

Gregory Rudd, who spent 18 years in prison, had the same response. “Compared to jail, this ain’t no lockdown,” said the 52-year-old. “This is a luxury down.”

For many formerly incarcerated people, the idea of isolation at home being torturous feels a bit laughable. On the other hand, finding work — already a challenge — is harder than ever.  Plus, there’s a lot of worry about their friends who are still inside as the prisons try to curb an outbreak.

Municipalities across the country are beginning to release people from lock-up in order to curb the virus’ spread in correctional facilities. Criminal justice advocates in Philadelphia are urging the courts to do the same.

Will there be anyone to help returning citizens re-adjust to a world in crisis?

Formerly incarcerated people already face challenges securing work, said J. Johndi Harrell, director of the Philly nonprofit Center for Returning Citizens. With the economy on freeze, the gulf of concern deepens. Even for those who’ve since built successful lives for themselves, the pandemic heightens anxieties about the bottom falling out.

“We are uniquely experienced to ride this out,” said Harrell, who spent time in prison himself. “But our population is, as always, going to be some of the hardest hit by this situation.”

Jondhi Harrell is the founder of The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC) in Philadelphia Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Some have their own ‘bailout money,’ but finding work is rough

Gregory Rudd knows how quickly setbacks can happen. After nearly two decades in prison, Rudd got out in 2009 and used the kitchen skills he picked up inside to build a career in the food industry. He was promoted up to manager, and worked at several different corporate franchises.

One day at work in Willow Grove, a delivery truck backed into him, leaving him permanently injured. Rudd now lives on a fixed disability income. The pandemic hasn’t hit him too hard yet, save for missing regular visits from his grandson.

But he spends time thinking about the men and women who will be released into this world on edge. Finding opportunities isn’t easy, even before the setbacks.

“The transition is going to be a little shaky, if not a lot shaky,” said Rudd. “They’re going to be lost. They won’t be able to get a job…It’s rough enough without a pandemic.”

Philadelphia prisons released over 16,000 people from custody between 2017 and 2018, often with little money or even personal belongings.

After striking a plea deal with New Jersey prosecutors five years ago over drug charges, Jasmyra Saunders had already seen her professional life upended. Even with her master’s degree in business administration, the 30-year-old hasn’t been able to find steady work — and the situation now looks even more dire.

“I’m ready to go out, trying to find another source of income, and with the quarantine, it’s like, you gotta stay in the house,” Saunders said. “It’s frustrating.”

In-person probation reporting has been suspended in Philadelphia during the crisis. So have many of the lifelines intended to help people get back on their feet.

Harrell, of the Center for Returning Citizens, said some reentry services that provide a pipeline to jobs are now at a standstill. Meanwhile, the industries that often hire formerly incarcerated people — restaurants, casinos and hotels — remain on economic freeze.

“All that is dead,” Harrell said. “That income is just gone.”

Tracey Syphax of Trenton, N.J., owns a construction company and a real estate investment firm. He’s already had to lay some workers off. Especially for formerly incarcerated men, like he is, Syphax says it’s important to plan for the worst.

“One of the most volatile roads you can go through is in prison,” said Syphax, “but economically there are gonna be winners and losers here.”

The banks got a bailout after the 2008 market crash, the businessman said, but he had to fend for himself. He often remembers advice he got on the streets when he was still pursuing a life of crime: always set aside money for bail. 

“I have my own bailout money now,” he said.

Worry over what’s happening on the inside

Some returning citizens also worry about what’s happening to those who remain on the inside throughout the crisis.

Despite years of reforms, Philadelphia’s jails remain overcrowded. As of January, about 4,700 are being held behind their bars. Advocates have called for the release of all nonviolent offenders to help flatten the curve, and criminal justice leaders in the city have been hashing out a plan to allow many low-risk people out on conditional leave.

“There’s a lot of neglect medically on the part of the [prison] administration,” Van Zant said. “I wonder about these guys and if something breaks out in there, how are they going to be able to control it?”

When he speaks to his old friends as SCI Phoenix on the phone or by email, Van Zant emphasizes the gravity of the coronavirus and urges them to take it seriously.

Inmate advocates fear the inevitable outbreak. They say prisons act as explosive vectors for spreading the virus. More reports of correctional officers testing positive for COVID-19 continue to crop up across the U.S. Philadelphia reported its first case last week.

“Everything inside the jail comes inside the guards,” said Tarrance Tykeem, 44, a returning citizen who is now a filmmaker.

On Monday, the Pa. Department of Corrections announced a statewide inmate quarantine across its 24 correctional facilities to curb an outbreak. Prisoners will be fed in their cells, and all outside movement “will be controlled to conform to social distancing recommendations,” according to the department.

Other protocols are already in place. Visitation rights have been suspended for more than two weeks. New inmates and correctional officers are being screened for symptoms before they enter the facility, according to the department’s coronavirus response policy.

Tykeem said the restrictions also mean less outreach for those inside. He said programs like Mann Up at SCI Phoenix, where speakers come to counsel African American men serving time there, have been postponed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the situation that awaits those who do get out offers little hope.

“I’ve already seen grown men crying who have lost their jobs and their whole lives have been affected,” Tykeem said.

Philadelphia Managing Director Brain Abernathy said he recognizes the challenge of providing outreach to people — potentially hundreds — being released and trying to reenter society at this time. City resources are strained as officials try to respond. “We are doing our best to make sure they have access to food and shelter,” Abernathy said Friday.

Harrell, the reentry nonprofit leader, feels he won’t know the full impact of the crisis on his community for years to come.

“Even when this lifts, it’s going to take time to come back,” he said. “Returning citizens will be the last ones.”

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...