On the night of April 4, 2007, Robinson (no relation to Angelo) allowed two male acquaintances into her apartment so that they could rob her friend, William Means, who was spending the evening there. Means had a job and money, and during the robbery, one of the men drew a gun and shot Means to death. The prosecutor offered Robinson 10 years if she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and robbery, but on advice of her attorney, she turned it down. She was sentenced to 18 years to life. In prison, she rose to the status of an “honor lifer,” running classes for other inmates, and earning certificates in janitorial and electrical work. In 2019, Singleton and Tolbert, the prosecutor, persuaded a court to let her accept the plea she had rejected a decade earlier, and free her with time served.
The return to civilian life, particularly for those who have spent a decade or more in prison, can be a disorienting, uphill climb. Finding an apartment, landing a job, applying for a driver’s license, paying off debts such as child-support payments when you’ve been earning 40 cents an hour—all of these make the transition a Sisyphean task. State and local governments have no obligation to help a prisoner reenter society. “They don’t have to do a thing,” Mauer notes, “and in most cases, they do a very inadequate job.”
Some cities, such as New York, offer a range of programs—job training and placement, affordable housing, drug-treatment programs—often by funding nonprofit community or religious organizations. But if you’re unlucky enough to be from, say, rural Alabama or Mississippi—almost any rural community, in fact—you’re pretty much on your own.
Read: A prison lifer comes home
The pandemic exacerbates the problem. Could these organizations, already operating on goodwill and a shoestring, handle hundreds or thousands of people released at once? “That would stretch [them] to the limits,” Singleton says.
“Every single state is going to go through a financial crisis,” says Arthur Rizer, the director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank. “Where are they going to cut their money? It’s not going to be from Main Street. It’s definitely not going to be Wall Street. It’s going to be from the services that provide the types of things that these people need to come back to the fold.”
Last summer, when Michelle Robinson left prison, the marketplace was ravenous for labor, and her reentry proceeded relatively smoothly. She moved in with her daughter, and landed a job with a company that cleaned up houses damaged by floods, fires, and other natural disasters. “I had a good job ’til this COVID-19 started,” she says. She was laid off in March, when the state locked down and the company’s contracts disappeared. She would fire up the computer three or four times a day and apply for every job she could find, reluctantly checking the box inquiring about felony convictions. She rarely heard back. “Tyson Foods hires felons, but they’re at their max. Servpro hires felons, but they’re at their max.” So does Kroger, but her conviction is “too fresh.” She can’t work at drive-throughs: “With a robbery on there, they don’t want me counting money.” After three months, she finally landed a job at a restaurant.