DPS project protects public safety, newly released offenders during COVID-19

Author: Greg Thomas

Every year, thousands of people complete their sentences in one of North Carolina’s correctional institutions and return to their community. 

Preparing offenders for their return home is a nine-month process. Case managers review the home plan with the offender to ensure they will have a stable place to live, they help the offender get new identification and documents they may need and help the offender connect with resources for employment, transportation and other assistance.

That process is a challenge in normal times but throw a global health crisis into the mix and the effort gets really complex– especially when assisting offenders who may have been exposed to COVID-19 prior to release. State law prohibits offenders from remaining in prison at the completion of their sentence whether they have been exposed or not. 

During this pandemic, to address the issue of offenders who would otherwise be homeless, or don’t have a stable home to go to and may have been exposed to COVID-19, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice has teamed up with Durham County and the City of Durham. The effort provides short-term temporary shelter at a motel in Durham for a limited number of offenders who have completed their prison sentences and have post-release supervision. DPS has rented out the entire motel for the project. It’s structured around FEMA guidelines for providing non-congregate housing during a pandemic. 

“The most important thing the department is trying to do is address public safety and public health concerns that exist due to COVID-19,” said Nicole Sullivan, director of Reentry Programs and Services. “This is an opportunity for people to get medical care. They are monitored, they have a roof over their head, three meals a day and assistance with finding stable housing in their home community. All of these supports are necessary for anyone getting out of prison to make that transition successful. We’re trying to help in what is really a very difficult time.”

So far, nearly 300 offenders who have been released and may have been exposed to COVID-19 have sheltered at the motel during their 14-day quarantine. This was an opportunity to make sure people who may have been exposed had a place to shelter where we could provide them with the support they needed, but also help them find a place to go. 

The essential supports to make sure offenders get going in the right direction are the crisis counselors helping people making home plans, and Community Corrections officers who help program participants transition to supervision. 

Program Director Tieshia Young said she has heard from many participants who are very appreciative of the program. “One participant told me it was so good that we were doing this for people who have nowhere to go during this pandemic. Another told me he didn’t think he would have survived on the street with his medical conditions and appreciated the care very much,” Young said.

“We are really fortunate that we formed a partnership with Durham County and the City of Durham to embrace this idea. There is a lot going on in every community with COVID-19, so we really appreciate their support and willingness to partner with us on this project,” Sullivan said.

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