Reentry groups respond to pandemic’s early release of prisoners

By Keri Mitchell - April 22, 2020

South Dallas

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Co-published by our media partner, The Dallas Weekly

During a typical month, Dennis Gant may welcome one or two new residents to the former South Dallas apartment building that now operates as a dormitory for men who just left prison and are trying to get on their feet.

In the last three weeks, however, six new residents have been released to the care of Trinity Restoration Ministries.

As the novel coronavirus spreads, “I’ve been hearing they’re letting guys go more frequently,” Gant says.

He can house 37 men in the dormitory and has room for maybe 10 more at this point.

“One thing you don’t want to do is tell the Texas Department of Criminal Justice you don’t have room for a guy because that delays his release, and you don’t know where he’s going to end up,” Gant says. “Some of the reentry facilities are not good players. They need a place that’s safe and is trying to do best they can for their success.”

COVID-19 is causing all kinds of challenges for nonprofits like Gant’s, which serve the formerly incarcerated. Normally a pandemic is not the ideal time to launch a nonprofit initiative, but for 10 Dallas nonprofits focused on reentry, an initial gathering scheduled for April turned out to be fortuitous.

As the nonprofit leaders spoke virtually earlier this month, COVID-19 continued its spread through Texas prisons and jails, including Dallas County’s. Positive cases among inmates more than tripled from last week to this week, with 42 cases as of Thursday, April 16, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office reported to Fox 4.

Meanwhile, Texas prisons have seen positive tests among offenders more than quadruple since last week, from 70 on April 9 to 327 on April 16, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Judges have begun to release some offenders with non-violent backgrounds. The Dallas County jail, for example, is holding 1,000 fewer inmates than it did a month ago.

All of this means that local nonprofits who provide reentry services suddenly have a lot more clients on their hands and complications to deal with. So their first meeting, held on Zoom instead of around a table at the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’ downtown headquarters, was less get-to-know-you and more let’s-get-to-work.

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The goal of the group is to “work better together to solve for some of these really urgent needs, which are now exacerbated,” says Froswa’ Booker-Drew. As the nonprofit leaders traded stories and ideas during the Zoom gathering, “I was just in there with my mouth open,” she says.

Booker-Drew leads the State Fair of Texas’ community involvement efforts, which partners with United Way and the University of North Texas-Dallas to focus on strengthening nonprofits in Dallas’ southern sector. This group is the fourth iteration, and it was born out of a job fair last August that brought together nonprofits who focus on reentry efforts.

“What I noticed is they weren’t talking to each other,” Booker-Drew says, which is problematic because they’re “serving a population that’s not necessarily sexy.”

“I’m concerned because we have a concentrated population of people in South Dallas who have been impacted by incarceration,” she says.

Nonprofits often feel like they’re competing for limited funds, Booker-Drew says, which keeps them from collaborating to solve problems. The goal of connecting them is to provide training, resources and a network they can turn to for support.

That happened right out of the gate for this group. Gant brought up his challenge of trying to grocery shop for 30 men when stores had capped the purchase of essential items like bread, milk and toilet paper. The group connected him to suppliers who could meet that need.

Armando Cantu leads the Cardboard Project, which serves homeless and formerly incarcerated people who live in “digital deserts” — they don’t have access to the internet and don’t own a cell phone or device of some sort, which makes it much harder to apply for jobs and access resources available to them.

It also makes it much harder for them to be aware of crucial messages about COVID-19 protection and prevention, and Cantu told the group he was concerned about those living in digital deserts. That led to a connection with Cityscape Schools, whose students designed fliers with instructions about social distancing and information on available shelters, showers and health clinics open during the pandemic.

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The fliers are being added to grab-and-go grocery bags and lunches, like the ones being passed out from Cornerstone Community Kitchen. Cantu normally sets on shop at the South Dallas church on Tuesdays and Thursdays, offering to create email addresses, virtual phone numbers and digital voicemails for the homeless being served meals.

Social distancing orders prevent Cantu from doing this during the pandemic, but he’s hoping the fliers will make an impact, especially as kitchens like Cornerstone’s experience a spike in numbers because of COVID-19’s impact.

Ashley Brundage of United Way was on the Zoom call with the reentry nonprofits and watched in excitement as people who didn’t know each other “made connections that day that helped them solve some of the challenges their clients were experiencing.”

“The network they’re going to build over these 10 sessions is going to be tremendous for them,” says Brundage, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’ senior vice president of community impact.

United Way’s focus on southern sector nonprofits emerged in 2015 as the organization realized it was financially supporting too few of them.

“We know that they are the trusted organizations and trusted resources in their communities. They are the closest to their clients and to the people in our community who need the most help,” Brundage says. “When you have a small agency that’s been around for 20 years but has never been able to get support from major foundation in town, there’s something broken in that model. How can we help fill a gap that’s there? Because obviously these organizations are needed, and we need to help them.”

People recently released from prison are facing “the most uphill battle of all of us right now. They’re already behind the eight ball in finding employment and finding housing,” she says. “Those who already had a hard time in our community are going to feel it exponentially after this.”

At Trinity Restoration, Gant says, “we have guys who have lost their jobs who we have to carry financially. Other guys are ‘essential’ employees for different companies so they’re coming and going. All of our men are on parole, and parole doesn’t shut down; men still have to make parole meetings.”

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Even with all of the coming and going, “we haven’t had anybody get sick yet, but we’ve taken a lot of steps we don’t normally take to avoid people getting sick.”

Those who have lost jobs are tasked with deep cleaning three times day. Gant’s wife and the wife of his program manager, who is a nurse, are sewing masks for the men. They built walls to close off four beds in case anyone gets sick and needs to be isolated.

The goal is to keep everyone well so that Trinity Restoration can continue serving its current residents and take in new ones.

“We’ve never had to turn anybody away yet,” Gant says, “and we sure don’t want to start now.”

Editorial note: Since this story was published, one of Trinity Restoration Ministries’ residents tested positive for COVID-19, and its dormitory is now in quarantine.


Support reentry efforts and other South Dallas needs during ‘North Texas Giving Tuesday Now’

On Tuesday, May 5, Communities Foundation of Texas, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and The Dallas Cowboys come together for a one-day emergency giving blitz — the local edition of the global #GivingTuesdayNow effort to support covid-19 relief and recovery.

Donors can give directly to organizations on the front lines of the covid-19 response, or support the needs of more than 3,000 local nonprofits that participated in September 2019’s North Texas Giving Day.

Donations of any amount can be made at northtexasgivingday.org, anytime between now and May 5.

The reentry nonprofits participating in North Texas Giving Tuesday are:

Alert Ministries Inc.

CARDboard Project

Hopeful Solutions

Lone Star Justice Alliance

Trinity Restoration Ministries

Or donate to other reentry nonprofits involved in the United Way group:

Adult Rehabilitation Ministries

AES Literacy Institute

FAWC Conservatory of Arts and Sciences

First Step Community Empowerment

Heart of Courage

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