California Counties Brace for Parolee 'Tsunami'
Posted September 16, 2009 

By Bernice Yeung | Crowdfund this with Spot.Us
Part of the Prisons & Public Health news blog

As the state of California grapples with overcrowded prisons, its counties struggle with the flip side of the problem -- a lack of support for the increasing number of people returning from prison who need reentry services. 

For example, a recent survey by prisoner advocates found that most shelters and services for women parolees in San Francisco and Alameda counties have long waiting lists, and many are unreachable by the phone numbers in official resource guides published by the state. 

Budget Cuts Deepening

"There are not nearly enough services and what services do exist are not coordinate optimally," says Darryl Stewart, a constituent liaison and organizer for Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, and a member of the Alameda County Reentry Network. 

State budget cuts have drastically affected "any program that deals with the safety net for low-income individuals," he said, "Cuts to social services, food stamps, general assistance and health care -- this is the safety net that people are talking about, and that safety net has been shredded."

Factor in the pending release of state prisoners, he says, and the result is "a tsunami coming at us, not just with the potential of early release, but because about 7,000 people are paroled to Alameda County each year."

In Hayward, Calif., the 14-year-old Women on the Way Recovery Center provides addiction treatment services primarily to formerly incarcerated women. 

Currently, the organization has 36 women on the waiting list for its 10-bed residential treatment program, while an additional 56 women are waiting for space at the center's eight-bed transitional housing.

Once they become clients of the program, these women face additional challenges to accessing services, said Barbara Quintero, the center's director of operations. 

"The barriers to reentry are medical, dental, mental health and housing," Quintero said. "There are barriers to these women getting health care consistently. There is a system, but it takes weeks to get in. So it's not that we don't have a system, it's just that the system is broken down, especially with the budget cuts."

Women's Services Struggle

When the nearby Central Health Clinic in Fairmont Hospital closed due to budget cuts several years ago, Women on the Way clients were lucky to receive most of their health care, dental work and mental-health prescriptions through an Alameda County program called Health Care for the Homeless. 

Quintero, whose clients include women with stomach cancer and diabetes, said that without Health Care for the Homeless's last-minute suport, "these women would get no care." 

Not all returning prisoners have such a fallback, however. 

This August, All of Us or None, a national advocacy organization of ex-prisoners, teamed with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners to survey the East Bay and San Francisco housing programs for women listed in the parolee resource guide given to inmates upon release. 

They found that of the 17 East Bay housing options listed in the resource guide, 10 weren't reachable by phone; in San Francisco, four of the 11 housing options were unreachable. 

Of the housing services that All of Us or None was able to contact, most of them had waiting lists; there were no beds available in the East Bay and only five beds in San Francisco (two beds required a one- to two-week process to become eligible, two beds were for single women without children only, and one bed required a referral from a social service agency). 

The results were announced at the Alameda County Reentry Network's meeting last month, said Linda Evans, an organizer with All of Us or None, and "what became really clear from this presentation is that this is an ongoing crisis."

In other words, the early release of inmates from California state prisons is only going to make an existing problem worse. 

"[W]hat came out from the research and the discussion afterward is that the services that people need aren't there now for the people who are normally coming home," Evans said. "And that is a crisis in and of itself."

The sparse reentry services for women will be re-visited at the next Coordinating Council meeting, which is coming up on September 17. 

 Three Strikes Legal - Index