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Being released from prison is hard. Coronavirus makes it harder.

Inmates searching for work, housing during a pandemic may struggle more than normal

In late February, when Danielle Hutchinson was ready to be released from prison, she wanted to do it right. She didn’t daydream about going to the beach or running around town. She thought about getting a job, going back to school and getting clean.

A week after being released from Lowell Correctional Institution, Hutchinson, 40, found a job. She was promoted with a raise on her second day.

But three weeks in, she had to stop working. The Ruskin sports bar that hired her was slowing down because of coronavirus. After just a few days of coming in to clean, Hutchinson was told she’d been terminated.

“It’s like I’m falling further and further behind," Hutchinson said.

For former inmates like Hutchinson, transitioning back into society is difficult and anxiety-fueled. Now, coronavirus may further complicate the process of finding housing, employment and a sense of security, said David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Hutchinson is a resident at a transitional home, Haven of Hope, in Ruskin. She’s been told she’ll get her job back when businesses can reopen. But not being able to work makes her feel like a failure, she said. She can’t qualify for unemployment benefits because she wasn’t working long enough, and her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits have been held up after a paperwork snafu.

“One thing as an addict that you’ve got to work on is your self-esteem and your self-worth,” said Hutchinson, who was in prison for possession of a controlled substance and had been in prison once previously. “Not working, I just feel like I’m useless again.”

The Florida Department of Corrections is still releasing inmates as scheduled amid coronavirus. According to data from the agency, at least 1,330 inmates were released from April 1, when Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a state shutdown, to April 16. And at least 2,290 inmates were released in March, when different counties slowly began shuttering operations before the state did.

Some former inmates still have work in essential industries. Jerome Fiffie got his commercial drivers license and started working before the coronavirus hit. Now he drives for weeks at a time, helping to move beef.

Though Fiffie, 42, is in a good situation, he said people released from prison need help. He’s been aided by the Tampa Bay Academy of Hope, which has a program to help former inmates find work.

“You do that time and you try to get out and do the right thing and you don’t come home to no type of support,” Fiffie said.

For Seneca Dukes, who’s been out of prison for nearly a year, losing his job at Applebee’s was a blow. He likes to work; after spending time in prison he said he wants to prove he’s not a statistic, not doomed to commit another crime and land back up where he began.

But he said when there’s no work, the temptation to pick the easy route is stronger. He said it’s hard not to prejudge himself like others would, even though he wants to work and is committed to it. But he said his adjustment has been thrown off.

“That’s not fair to my [reformation], not fair to my progress," Dukes, 39, said.

Fathi said the millions of people now unemployed makes it harder for former inmates to find work, especially when competing for limited jobs against people with more consistent work experience. Plus, a number of companies won’t consider felons at all.

“To emerge from prison into a society that is essentially locked down until further notice is more difficult than I think most people could imagine,” he said.

The limited resources that do exist to house, feed and help felons find jobs may also be affected by the virus, Fathi said. Most of them are nonprofits that rely on grant money and donations.

“I am afraid that even those few resources that exist may be further reduced as their funding dries up as a result of the economic fallout,” he said.

Janet Smith, the founder of Haven of Hope of Hillsborough County, said they’re already “in the hole” financially because of a canceled fundraiser. And with the women at the house not working, they’re not paying into the program as they normally would.

Smith said that although the women have a place to stay and food to eat, they want to contribute.

“They want to be independent, you know?,” she said. “Just like the rest of everybody else, they want to get back to work.”

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