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Pandemic Has Severely Disrupted Prison Rehab Programs

Joseph Sena has spent nearly half of his 27 years in prison for manslaughter. For almost as long, he’s been striving to make himself a better man. He has taken courses in creative writing, addressed his addictions, and attended school in prison, hoping to be judged fit for parole and ready to return home to Los Angeles if he’s ever freed, the Associated Press reports. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, tearing through prisons and killing thousands, it severely disrupted or shut down programs prisoners desperately need to prepare for eventual release. Trauma counseling, training in carpentry, masonry and barbering, and college courses were slow to adjust to pandemic learning. Isolation and uncertainty replaced creative outlets and mental health therapies for months.


In a nation that incarcerates 2 million people — a disproportionate number of them Black and Hispanic — the COVID pandemic was a nightmare for prisons. Overcrowding, subpar medical care, staffing shortages and the ebb and flow of prison populations left most places unprepared to manage the spread of the contagious virus. At least 3,181 prisoners and 311 correctional staff died of virus-related causes through mid-January of this year, says to a COVID tracking project at the University of California Los Angeles law school. The 10 largest state prison systems suspended or severely curtailed in-person visitation for an average of 490 days before such restrictions were lifted. That meant no family visits, and no volunteers coming in to lead rehabilitation programs. At the worst of times, prisoners said they were locked in their cells for weeks on end, their otherwise normal activities like phone calls to loved ones left up to the whims of correctional officers. When things seemed to return to normal, just one COVID-positive case in their living quarters would send them back into isolation for weeks.

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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