Mobile van at Howard Young prison

A mobile van parks near Howard R. Correctional Center four days per week to help inmates who've just been released get access to services.

Inmates exiting prison can now live with their loved ones in public housing long-term due to a pilot program being launched by the Delaware State Housing Authority and the Delaware Department of Correction.

The Family Reentry Pilot program is aimed at removing barriers and reducing recidivism as part of Governor Carney's Executive Order 27 on re-entry. Ex-offenders were previously barred from living in public housing.

"Family is one of the most stabilizing forces in all of our lives," said Adam Balick, chair of the Delaware Correctional Reentry Commission. "When a young man or woman gets released from prison, not only will they now be able to live in public housing, but they may be able to live with a family member--the one person that makes their life more stable, that keeps them on a solid path."

DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis said before the governor's executive order, the department used to think about re-entry when an offender had two months left on his or her sentence.

"Now, we focus on it within the first two months of a person's sentence," she said.

DeMatteis called the housing piece the most challenging part of the re-entry puzzle. At least one in 10 inmates told the department, in a survey, they face a housing insecurity.

"Meaning they don't know where they're going to go upon release," she said.  

"Few things are more destabilizing to someone's life than not having a place to live, not having a roof over their head," said Balick.

DeMatteis called this pilot program one tool in a toolbox of many that involves non-profit partners.

"We can give an offender a GED while they're incarcerated; we can provide job skills and counseling, and when they are released, we can make sure they have a state identification, a driver's license; we can make sure they get healthcare on Medicaid or Medicare, but housing--a place to live--it is fundamental to their success in the community," she said. "Allowing an inmate to stay wit ha loved one is going to go a long way for incarcerated individuals to know that they have a home on the outside."

DOC staff will work with inmates to demonstrate that they have housing options. The DOC will make referrals to housing agencies through the Delaware Center for Justice, which will follow-up with ex-offenders, to ensure their needs are met. The program has protections in place to allow family members to maintain their public housing if the living arrangement doesn't work out. 

"Obviously, DOC continues to actively supervise these [ex]-offenders no matter where they live, and certainly as they are living as guests in public housing," said DeMatteis.

Inmates released in the last three years will be eligible. State Housing Director Anas Ben Addi called it groundbreaking for Delaware.

"We may not be the first housing authority to implement this pilot, but we are the first statewide to implement this pilot," he said.

Balick, a former deputy attorney general, who now has his own law practice, said this program leads to better outcomes for ex-offenders and the state.

"If we can help these men and women smoothly transition from incarceration back into our community, and if we can remove the barriers that often lead them to criminal activity, we're going to make their lives better, but importantly...we're going to make our state safer," Balick said.

David Bever, executive director of the Delaware Center for Justice, said this program is a "lifeline" for ex-offenders.

"We believe in second chances. Both experience and evidence tells us that family support and stable a successful component of re-entry, and without that foundation, re-entry is virtually impossible," said Bever. "This pilot program provides that foundation by removing a real barrier to real second chances..especially in the middle of a pandemic that's been very hard on re-entrants."

The memorandum of understanding is the culmination of a year-and-a-half of work; it was signed by both state agencies virtually Thursday.

The pilot will involve only properties that are owned and operated by public housing authorities, for now. Early next year, it will be expanded to Housing Choice Voucher holders.