Motorola E6 smartphones charging up before delivery to people leaving Philly jails.

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Dozens of people released from Philadelphia jails since the pandemic began have gotten a phone call from Herb Baker.

Sometimes they don’t pick up. Understandable, Baker thinks — it’s a complete stranger calling. So he leaves a message introducing himself. He’s a 55-year-old barber, paralegal and peer counselor. Last year, he walked out just like they did after spending 35 years behind bars.

“I’ve been where you’re at,” Baker says into the voicemail, “and I understand there’s confusion and I know how difficult it might seem.”

This kind of outreach has steadily grown more common in Philadelphia, the most incarcerated big city per capita in the U.S. But just as emergency measures led to a surge of over 1,300 discharges from city jails, the pandemic has battered the reentry service system, forcing people to return to a decimated job market with few lifelines.

What makes Baker’s voicemails so unusual isn’t the call itself, but how he got the numbers.

The phones were purchased by the nonprofit where he works, the Center for Carceral Communities, a reentry services collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania.

Over the last two weeks, the Center has provided nearly three dozen smartphones to inmates being released from the city’s four jails — with dozens more en route. The group gave an additional 18 devices to two organizations who also work with the city’s formerly incarcerated.

From looking for jobs to connecting with family to meeting court obligations, phone access is often the first big hurdle someone has to overcome after spending time in lockup. Said Baker: “Without a computer or a smartphone, you are basically in the dark, you know? You’re just wandering.”

Advocates in other cities have launched similar efforts to close the digital divide for returning citizens, but this is the most sophisticated effort to date in Philly.

Around $150 a pop, the Motorola E6 devices come equipped with a three-month prepaid plan, a pre-downloaded Zoom app and contact numbers for social service providers. Once handed off, there are no strings attached, but the Center says they’ve had no trouble keeping people engaged.

‘Nobody does a nice thing for you in the criminal justice system’

The idea came early on in the crisis to Toorjo “TJ” Ghose, a professor at Penn and founder of the Center for Carceral Communities. The academic world was way ahead in pivoting to teleconferencing. He moved his classes to Zoom in early March. As the virus spread, he thought, how could he get Zoom to people getting out of jail?

Smartphones, obviously. But getting them and delivering them to people would be the challenge.

Government agencies tend not to be fast adopters of new proposals, and this was a pandemic after all. But with support from District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office, where Ghose was an early adviser, a plan came quickly to life. The Center raised nearly $70,000 from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Ford Foundation and the Proteus Fund, according to Ghose.

And the Philadelphia Department of Prisons was on board to hand off the devices. “Sometimes it takes a crisis like this to shake up institutional reluctance,” Ghose said.

Under normal circumstances, the Center would send someone like Baker to meet people upon discharge to help with the process of getting started on a new life. That in-person pickup — called a “warm handoff” in the world of social work — wasn’t feasible with social distancing guidelines in place.

So jail officials provided the ready-to-go devices upon release, and told them to call the Center’s phone number in the contacts.

“People are, with good reason, pretty suspicious,” said Noam Keim, program manager at the Center. “There’s usually always a trick. Nobody does a nice thing for you in the criminal justice system.”

Some called just to suss out if there was a catch — or a surprise bill coming for them in the mail. But the team says there aren’t any expectations for keeping the phone. An honor system is used for signing up, and so far, many have declined the free offer, saying they didn’t need it.

“This is really about the necessity of getting off the streets and staying alive,” Ghose said.

Phones as a lifeline to reentry

Calling probation officers. Connecting with family. Putting together a job resume. For some, getting into drug treatment.

Newly returned citizens face many responsibilities if they want to stay far away from the city’s correctional facilities on State Road, let alone regain control of their lives. However, many are coming back with little or no money, and getting a mobile device can be a daunting process.

“You got to go to welfare to get a phone, and if you don’t have a proper ID, which most don’t, they fall into despair,” Baker said. “Providing the phones is taking that out of the equation, and helps them make the necessary connections.”

Despite the no-strings-attached outlook, Baker said every person who received a phone in the initial round has been in touch so far.

Some have already joined the Center’s regular Zoom sessions.

On Friday nights, Ghose will stream a movie on the teleconferencing app for whoever’s around. He got roundly booed for trying the Star Wars movies, but the eclectic, mixed-age group all agreed on the Avengers flicks.

Phones provide emotional support, too, Baker emphasized. When he was released, last year, he said he had “fears of being left behind or that no one cares.” The Center helped him through it, and now he’s paying it forward.

“They feel as though they don’t have anybody to talk to or communicate with or help them,” he said. “They go back to their old ways, and this is what we’re trying to prevent.”

The Center has plans to expand the phone access program to more people leaving the city’s jails. There’s also enough funding to extend phone plans beyond three months for those who stay engaged.

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...