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In August, organizers from Safe Return Project and RYSE Center protested outside of John A. Davis Juvenile Hall. Their aim is to close juvenile hall. A young woman in black speaks to a crowd of about 20 people through a megaphone and a mask. Signs from the crowd read: "Rescue the kids," "Save the Ranch," "NO JAIL FOR..."

Navigating prison reentry during a pandemic

on October 14, 2020

Under typical circumstances, reentry for justice-impacted people – those just released from prison – is a path laid with obstacles large and small, from securing housing and employment to getting a state ID.

That is why organizations such as the Reentry Success Center and the Safe Return Project in Richmond have pivoted their programming and services to an online format during the pandemic.  

“COVID has done nothing but exacerbate these challenges and put a 10 on them,” said Pat Mims, director of the Reentry Success Center in Richmond.

In addition to setting up an intake and resource referral phone line that is staffed 12 hours a day, the Reentry Success Center has moved all of its support groups online and secured access to technology for its members.

“Our message has not changed,” said Mims. “We’re here with you, we’re walking with you, and we’ll support you through this time.”

Mims said that six months into the pandemic, the center is offering a women’s group, a men’s group, a restorative arts class, and conflict-resolution circles. “All of these things are happening and they’re just happening online now.”

Chala Bonner, program manager and lead organizer for the Safe Return Project, said the organization’s leadership thought briefly about hitting pause when the pandemic hit, “but then we had to think about our community.”

Safe Return’s major reentry projects, the Collective Impact Leadership Institute and the Richard Boyd Fellowship, focus on self-healing and building community organizing skills for justice-impacted individuals.

In August, organizers from Safe Return Protect and RYSE Center protested outside of John A. Davis Juvenile Hall in Contra Costa County. Their aim is to close juvenile hall. 

A young woman in black speaks to a crowd of about 20 people through a megaphone and a mask. 

Signs from the crowd read: "Rescue the kids," "Save the Ranch," "NO JAIL FOR..."

In August, organizers from Safe Return Project and RYSE Center protested to close John A. Davis Juvenile Hall.
Credit: Safe Return Project

“Our vision and our goal is to re-enfranchise those who have been disenfranchised by the criminal justice system and to get them back out into the community to be pillars and leaders,” Bonner said.

Given her own Zoom-centric work, Bonner said she has been pleasantly surprised that Boyd Fellows and Collective Impact participants are not feeling Zoom fatigue.

“These groups of people are super engaged,” she said. “They are vulnerable in the space, they open up, and they really get a lot out of it.”

Mica Herrera, 19, is in the second and final part of the 12-month Boyd fellowship, a paid program that coaches justice-impacted individuals on the foundations of grassroots organizing and civic engagement.

Herrera said it’s been a struggle to translate “feet-on-the-ground organizing” to virtual meetings, but she prefers it to the alternative. 

“I’ve been able to be consistent thanks to this opportunity and this program, and if I didn’t have this, honestly I’d probably end up back in jail.”

Now, Herrera is able to work with young women who are in juvenile hall, where she spent most of her teenage years.

“When I was in there, I thought there was no hope at all,” the Richmond native said.

“I get excited to tell them there is a chance to live differently, to make different decisions, to think differently.”

Herrera’s organizing also takes on structural issues. She participates in a weekly call with various community stakeholders to reimagine the youth justice system. One participant in those calls is the public defender who represented her just last year.

“I would only see this man behind glass, in cuffs,” Herrera said. 

“One year later, I’m sitting on Zoom calls, making plans with him, talking about budget meetings.”

Like Herrera, Mims of the Reentry Success Center sees the benefit in convening virtually. However, he said he is eager to open back up as soon as — and as safely — as possible.

“The human connection is so powerful,” he said. “And the people we serve work better off that connection.”

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