OPINION: What the Pandemic and ELection Have Meant for Nonprofits Struggling to Keep Our Communities Together

by Caitlin Lombardi 

Last Thursday afternoon, Derrick Martin-Armstead got a long-awaited resentencing hearing. After spending a quarter of his young life behind bars, Derrick is getting a chance at freedom. The hearing was a snapshot, a brief and formal moment in time, punctuating eight years of back and forth, tears, hopes, heartbreaks, emails and phone calls, phone calls, phone calls between Derrick and the Post-Prison Education Program, trying to forge some kind of future for him. Trying to install hope where there has been no justice.

Recent email from Derrick to Program staff:

While we await the news on whether Biden or Trump won Nevada, All fifty fingers at the Post-Prison Education Program office are crossed for Derrick and his family as we wait eagerly for news from the judge. We won’t know the ruling for days or weeks. And in the meantime, we will go on seeking hope for the other 60 people we are actively working with at the moment — both too many for our small staff to handle and a fraction of those who apply for our assistance in gaining in higher education after prison.

As Derrick’s story shows, “assistance in gaining higher education” for people who have been imprisoned, can take a thousand different forms. Most of the day, Taylor Buck and Lyala Khan, our student services staff, are on the phone with people inside prison. They coach them through financial aid, applications, making a budget, or just getting through the day. Then Taylor and Lyala might switch over to searching for housing that will accept one of our clients — a grueling task up against the stigma of incarceration or substance use disorder, and made nearly impossible if a client has a sex-related crime on their record. Perhaps next they will call one of the community colleges to see if an exception can be made for a client struggling with relapse. Then maybe they’ll take five minutes to laugh with one another so as not to drown in the darkness of it all, all day, every day.

Most of our clients are living with mental illness. Half have children. Half are racially targeted by a carceral system that harasses, cages and kills Black and Indigenous people at shocking, inexcusable and completely predictable rates, given its roots in slavery and genocide. For our clients with the highest needs, the Program invests an average of $860 a month to ensure safe housing, access to food, clothing and technology, legal help in cases like Derrick’s, and mental health stability. We always run on a tight budget, the size of which translates exactly into how many people we are able to support upon their release. 

And now this. Not only has the pandemic stressed our operations, moving critical in-person work to phones and computers, and halting our outreach efforts entirely, but COVID is killing people in prison with virtually no interference from public officials. The desperation this has caused behind bars where people are literally trapped – caged – next to others coughing on their deathbeds with no masks, no nothing – is immeasurable. Applications to our Program are through the roof.

But funding? That’s a very different story. Everywhere we turn, foundations are “not accepting new applications at this time,” while they help existing partners through COVID. Individual donors have “maxed out on the election” as they gave everything they could to candidates and political groups, hopefully to the result that will save some lives come January. It’s not hard to understand their thinking. But people are dying now. 

When a person is released from prison in Washington state, they are given $40. If they are mentally ill, they receive two weeks of medication. That’s it, and we wonder why 40-50% will end up back in prison within a few years. People who work with our program have a 92.13% success rate in staying out of prison, regardless of the barriers they face. Instead, they go on to become nurses, engineers, welders, attorneys, social workers, and build lives with their families. But without adequate funding, we are turning more people away than ever before. And we know what that means for them, their families, and our communities. We know what that means for taxpayers, who will then spend more than $3,000 a month to keep them behind bars again. We know the pain of saying “we can’t help you” to someone who simply will not be okay without help. But that’s what we do every day.

We are just one in a sea of organizations working as hard as possible to hold these loose and forgotten ends together. And we need you now.

Caitlin Lombardi is Director of Development & Policy for the Post-Prison Education Program in Seattle, Washington. 

Featured image is attributed to Transformer18 under a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution- NoDerivs license.