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s of April 30, over 800 individuals at the Cook County Jail had tested positive for COVID-19, including inmates and correctional officers. Seven had died (Heffernan, 2020). This jail is now just one of many US carceral institutions where the virus has swiftly ravaged the incarcerated population, where any sentence has now turned into a possible, if not probable, death sentence (see Associated Press, 2020; Chappell, 2020; Gross, 2020; Jackson, 2020; Kasakove, 2020; New York Times, 2020; Park et al, 2020). This should come as no surprise: in the nation that incarcerates more human beings than any other, most prisons are overcrowded, so millions of Americans spend their lives in extremely close quarters, sharing the same air, and without proper access to hand washing facilities, let alone hand sanitizer (PPI, 2020; McCarthy, 2018; Friedersdorf, 2020). In these settings, where most inmates are poor, even a bar of soap is a commodity to be purchased, rather than a guaranteed provision (Friedersdorf, 2020). At the same time, due to the urgency of the public health crisis, the virus has accomplished in a few short months what many advocates have long pushed for: crucial, if incremental, moves towards decarceration (see Democracy Now!, 2020; Mock, 2020; Williams et al., 2020).
The pandemic thus offers an opportunity to reconsider our prevailing carceral practices and, for activists, a chance to push broader abolitionist agendas. As individuals are released, however, another key question emerges: where will they live? As I will argue, the pre-existing dearth of housing opportunities for returning residents reveals the intertwining crises of our housing and carceral systems—crises that COVID-19 exacerbates, but does not create. Though not often considered as part of the same struggle, housing constitutes a crucial piece of the abolitionist puzzle, where abolition, following Ruth Wilson Gilmore, is understood as a multi-pronged effort, as being “about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons” (Haymarket Books, 2020 [Video 1, 26:50]).
Reentry Housing Before the Virus
Let us consider the status quo—that is, pre-pandemic—possibilities for what is known as “reentry housing,” or where people live after their release from prison or jail. As Gilmore again reminds us, most people get out of prison—a fact that our housing system has long ignored (Endicott, 2019; Haymarket Books, 2020). Until recently, returning residents have been locked out of public housing (itself a dwindling resource in the U.S.—see Smith, 2013; Vale, 2013) via intensive criminal records screenings as well as “One Strike” rules that allowed for the eviction of any public housing tenants and their family members upon the event of an arrest in the household (HUD, 1996). As I have argued in a recently published article in Environment and Planning D, returning residents have slowly begun to be incorporated into public housing programs over the past decade, but only in the most piecemeal, cautious fashion. Reentry pilot programs in major cities remain largely circumscribed by prevailing fears about crime, so the few carefully selected returning residents who participate in such experiments continue to be singled out and subject to additional regulations, rather than being mainstreamed into the general population deemed worthy of housing assistance. Such logics obscure the historical connections between public housing and the prison system, despite their considerable ties: low-income residents in public housing developments have frequently been subject to disproportionate and predatory policing, while many have argued that the design and management of public housing mirrored that of the prison (Goetz, 2013; Hunt, 2009; Shabazz 2009, 2015; Venkatesh 2000). Further, subsidized housing waitlists are long, if not closed, in most US cities, so those returning residents who are not screened out might wait years for an apartment or housing voucher to become available (see for example Hinton, 2018).
The picture in the private market is not much better. Quality affordable rental housing is in woefully short supply in most metropolitan areas as housing “crisis” is, as David Madden and Peter Marcuse (2016) remind us, a structural, rather than accidental, feature of capitalism (NLIHC, 2020). And in this realm too, rental discrimination against individuals with criminal records is not only legal but commonplace in all but a few major cities (BPI, 2018; PRI, 2017). Even where human rights bills bar such forms of discrimination, enforcement remains difficult, so landlords have a wide range of discretion in making tenancy decisions (BPI, 2018). Further, because the prison population is majority non-white and low-income, rental discrimination against returning residents compounds other forms of disadvantage, like discrimination based on race or class (ERC, 2016; HUD, 2016). Saddled with parole requirements that include regular check-ins and, at times, geographic restrictions, returning residents frequently have a hard time finding a landlord who will accept them, let alone in a place they want to live (BPI, 2018).
Many returning residents end up in the homeless shelter system—many, in fact, are paroled there (Metraux and Culhane, 2006). But, as much literature documents, the shelter system (however well-intentioned its operators may be) is an inhospitable environment for returning residents (as well as, in this moment, another site of uncontrolled contagion—Holder and Capps, 2020). Typically characterized by high levels of surveillance that mimic that of the prison (Deward and Moe, 2010; Williams, 1996; Sparks, 2013), many returning residents opt to live on the street rather than in another institution that monitors their activities and dictates when they can come and go (see Herring et al., 2019; Speer 2017). Still others face exposure to triggering activities like drug usage that they may be trying to avoid (see Wooditch et al., 2017). On heavily policed streets, homeless residents are more likely to be arrested and then re-incarcerated for minor infractions or parole violations, thus leading to what Teresa Gowan (2002) has termed the “nexus” between homelessness and incarceration (see also Couloute, 2018; Metraux et al., 2007).
Finally, while halfway houses and other transitional facilities with supportive services offer a viable housing option, these spaces are rare and typically met with rampant NIMBYism (Garland and Wodahl, 2017; Fortune Society, 2017). Those facilities that do exist often struggle to continue their operations on shoestring budgets, as social service providers have faced budget cuts imposed by austere state and urban governance in recent years (see Heil, 2016; Peck, 2012; Silets, 2016). Thus, as many activists and advocates have pointed out over the years, returning residents without family willing or able to house them face incredible barriers to securing safe, quality, and affordable housing, despite the crucial significance of housing to building a stable life on the outside.
Housing & Abolition
The shortage of reentry housing is one manifestation of what Loïc Wacquant (2001) calls the carceral continuum, or the progression of spaces and institutions that connect disinvested urban neighborhoods with the carceral state’s apotheosis: the prison. The carceral continuum perpetuates the carceral state as much by locking people in as it does by locking people out. However, our housing systems—steeped as they are in private property rights and specifically, the right to exclude (see Blomley, 2007, 2019; Merrill, 1998)—have, as one of my interviewees in Chicago put simply, “never acknowledged that.” She elaborates that, “When people committed their crimes and they were found guilty, they were given a sentence: X number of years incarcerated, X number of months on parole or probation. It did not say ‘And oh, by the way, you will be branded for life.’ That was not part of the sentence. Society has put on a third sentence that was never adjudicated.” If returning residents struggled to find housing before the pandemic, the struggle is only greater and more urgent now, with more returning—now to a context that requires measures like social distancing and self-quarantine, not to mention rigorous hygiene, to protect the masses.
Fixing our housing system is part of the longer project of abolition, of rendering prisons unnecessary by ensuring a key social need is met. In the nearer term, we must of course push for aggressive decarceration. We can do this by calling our local politicians and urging them to let people out. We can also do this by supporting community bond funds to bail out the 450,000 individuals currently being held in pre-trial detention (most of whom are only incarcerated because they cannot afford bail) and by advocating for progressive bail reform (Kendall, 2020). We can donate to organizations that are delivering soap and hand sanitizer into carceral facilities. Similarly, we can push for nationwide bans on discrimination based on criminal records, and work to make these bans enforceable, in part by increasing access to reporting mechanisms and legal recourse. We can support ‘ban the box’ campaigns that would make it easier for individuals with criminal records to get a job or an education. We can support records sealing bills that make it harder to conduct criminal records screenings. We can overturn the remaining criminal records screenings in public housing and shift budgets from prisons and police to health care, education, social services and yes, public housing.
A number of groups are already pushing for such agendas and doing important work on the front lines, and many have released specific COVID-19-related demands or recommendations in the recent months. To name just a few examples, the Prison Policy Initiative’s recommended COVID-19 response includes releasing people from prisons and jails, reducing new admissions, reducing face-to-face contact for people on parole and probation, eliminating medical co-pays, and reducing the cost of video and phone calls (PPI, 2020). The Vera Institute and the Sentencing Project have similarly released guidelines for stopping the spread of the virus within carceral institutions and urging states to speed releases (The Sentencing Project, 2020; Vera Institute, 2020). The Chicago Community Bond Fund has ramped up operations and advocacy campaigns to bail people out (Chicago Community Bond Fund, 2020). The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has run an important series of webinars on resisting state surveillance and the police state in the era of COVID-19, another crucial aspect of halting the carceral status quo (Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, 2020). These are just a few examples of critically important work being done by research and activist groups. Yet, housing remains a missing link, where the injustices endemic to our housing system threaten to curtail such crucial decarceration agendas. Without adequate post-release housing, we risk releasing people into a void, at a time when adequate shelter has never been more crucial.
In summary, COVID-19 brings to light the many, intertwining failures of our current housing and carceral systems just as it heightens the urgency to find new solutions to justly house our returning residents. The virus forces us to face the reality that—with 2.3 million residents (nearly twice that of public housing)—the carceral system is the ‘other’ public housing in the US today (HUD, 2020; PPI, 2020). If that system is, as Gilmore (2007) argues, a spatial fix for political economic problems, then we are at a moment where the “fix” is no longer tenable, just as it has never been morally tenable. Decarceration is urgent and necessary, so lack of housing options should never be used as an excuse (as it sometimes is, by policymakers) to keep people in cages. Housing, however, is a crucial piece of abolition geographies as much as it is a social determinant of health (Taylor, 2018; Vegas and Brennan, 2019). This has always been true; the virus has only made it more obvious.
 For one example from Illinois, see https://secure.actblue.com/donate/il-chep?bclid=IwAR2RkIlDm7ihtATqwUofUj8KwEr7VPavTBxxu6W8MNdQlwn8B-DtFFmyf4U.
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Madeleine Hamlin is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, where she also received her master’s in public administration. She previously worked as a policy analyst in Chicago. Her research examines the intersection of housing and carceral geographies in US cities.