By Victoria Anton
With the onset of the COVID-19 global health pandemic, prison populations have been a hot-button issue. Ongoing conversations among the public have included a call to reduce the prison population in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 among the incarcerated.
According to The Marshall Project, Ohio’s state prison population is experiencing COVID-19 cases at a rate almost 9 times higher than Ohio overall.
The review of these troubling statistics has resulted in advocates including Policy Matters Ohio, the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, and the ACLU of Ohio collectively calling for the release of thousands of people from Ohio prisons statewide.
With new COVID-19 cases on the rise throughout the country once again, calls for the reduction of the populations within our federal and state prisons are bound to rise with them. Independent of judicial orders or Governor Mike DeWine’s suggestions, individual counties have the potential to elect to reduce their incarcerated populations again as well.
During a normal year in the absence of COVID-19, the United States releases approximately 600,000 people from within the prison system.
The Franklin County Reentry Coalition states that Franklin County has the third highest population of formerly incarcerated individuals being released from incarceration throughout our entire state. Given the fact that the Franklin County Sheriff’s office has been reducing the incarcerated population as result of COVID-19, it’s expected that an above average number of formerly incarcerated individuals will be returning to our communities this year.
With the potential release of incarcerated individuals throughout the state, communities are now tasked with anticipating the return of their community members. For some families, this could mean the return of a close friend or a loved one. For others, the returning community member could take the form of an abusive partner or a violent spouse.
It’s important that we acknowledge the critical role that family serves as support systems for returning citizens. Researchers have found time and time again that reentering individuals rely heavily on their families for basic needs such as food, housing, and transportation. Consistent access to these resources predicts higher rates of reintegration success which is why maintaining these relationships is so important. The support families provide during the reentry process can make the difference between an unsuccessful and successful reintegration for returning members of our communities. As such, we should be advocating for policies that work to provide support wherever necessary in order to maintain the relationships between formerly incarcerated individuals and their families. By doing so, we are working to ensure our formerly incarcerated community members successfully reenter society for the long-term.
Researchers Bobbitt, Campbell, and Tate in a 2011 publication discussing domestic violence prevention during men’s reentry from prison assert that addressing intimate partner violence among justice-involved couples is a critical component to a safe and successful reintegration for returning community members and their families as well.
One challenge that some incarcerated individuals face in regard to maintaining familial ties is the presence of domestic and intimate partner violence. Several studies that track family and partner relationships during reentry, the most recently completed by Tasseli Mckay and co-researchers in 2013, have found that intimate partner violence poses a serious risk for the female partners of reentering men, particularly those with a history of intimate partner violence.
Further, researchers now suggest that incarceration itself might increase the risk of violence upon reentry due to coping mechanisms individuals develop to adapt to their incarceration setting such as increased alertness, a general distrust of others, and the emotional distancing from those around you, all which have the potential to promote interpersonal violence.
Navigating domestic violence is already a difficult enough task. Women who are partners of men returning from prison face unique barriers in regard to seeking help for domestic violence
In a 2020 report funded by the U.S Department of Justice, public health researcher Tasseli McKay identified some of the barriers faced by women who are partners of men returning from prison as being a difficulty in identifying their victimization experiences as a problem, deciding to seek help, and identifying sources of help.
By incorporating a domestic and intimate partner violence screening tool during the prison reentry process, women who are partners of men returning from prison will be provided with the necessary aid they need to tackle these existing barriers and accurately identify their experiences as abuse. With the identification of this abuse, those conducting the screening can connect these women and their justice-involved partners with the appropriate resources.
Now you may be asking yourself, how accessible is this sort of screening tool? In which case, I have good news.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), alongside the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Criminal Justice Research, has already developed a risk and need assessment tool called the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS).
As of April 2011, the ORAS became operational and has since been used among the justice-involved population in Ohio. The purpose of the ten tools in the ORAS is to predict the likelihood of an individual reoffending. But this isn’t enough. The screening the ODRC provides can and should go farther in rendering aid to our formerly incarcerated community members.
What if instead of solely predicting the likelihood of an individual reoffending, these tools were used to identify families at-risk for domestic and intimate partner violence? What if this tool was used to identify individuals who would benefit the most from the resources domestic violence agencies have to offer?
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Asha Project provides culturally specific programming within African American communities for the purpose of eliminating gender-based violence. Dating back to the 1990s, the Asha Project identified that many of their female victims of gendered violence were tied to the corrections system in some way.
Addressing this factor, the Asha Project positioned themselves in men’s correctional institutions to talk about domestic violence. In these institutions, the Asha Project began providing educational classes to incarcerated men, covering the impact and consequences of domestic abuse to not only themselves and their partners, but also their community as a whole.
The identification of justice-involved individuals and their families battling violence both during incarceration and prior to reentry can be achieved by implementing a domestic and intimate partner violence screening tool to the already existing tools in the ORAS.
By identifying preexisting instances of domestic and intimate partner violence during incarceration these individuals and their families can be put in contact with the necessary programs, like the Asha Project, that will work to provide respective forms of education and rehabilitation for all parties involved.
With the necessary education, we can provide resources that will affect positive change for both the families experiencing abuse and reach the individuals perpetrating the abuse as well.
When these forms of education and rehabilitation are being utilized by those who need them, the likelihood they re-offend will be lower. With lower rates of reoffending comes less taxpayer money being used for incarceration.
And when our community members are staying out of prison and jails as a consequence of avoiding re-offending, the transmission rate of COVID-19 within our communities will be lowered as well.
A domestic and intimate partner violence screening tool utilized by the ODRC will leave our communities better equipped to serve the needs of all community members, which includes our returning ones.
Editor’s note: Victoria Anton is a Master of Arts candidate in Sociology at Ohio University. She also works part-time for a local non-profit that serves survivors of sexual violence in Athens, Ohio.