When Haywood Gandy left prison after serving 20 years for armed robbery, he said it was "a panic-filled moment."
"It was lights out, 20 years later, lights on. The world looked completely different," Gandy said. "How do we tie all of this together? Because if I don't know how to use a computer, if I don't know where I'm going to live, if I don't know where I'm going to work, if I don't know how to keep a job ... These are skills that men and women coming home, we need these."
In a wide-ranging report that comprehensively examined how New Jersey treats former prisoners, a state commission laid out 100 recommendations to help formerly incarcerated people transition to life after prison, and detailed ways the state could help prevent them from going back to prison.
New Jersey state correctional institutions currently hold more than 19,000 prisoners, the report said. Around 3,200 are in federal prisons and 12,000 are in the county jail system. Last year, the state released 9,000 people.
The group, led by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, examined best practices in other states around health care, housing, legal and employment problems that negatively affect former prisoners. More than a dozen speakers — addicts, former prisoners, lawyers, doctors and clergy members — presented the findings at the Statehouse on Tuesday.
"The old model of reentry was to find them a job, God bless and good luck," said McGreevey, who heads the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a nonprofit that helps people who leave prison transition to the outside world. "Without addiction treatment, without linkage to housing ... that individual would not be able to sustain him or herself in their employment situation."
McGreevey and Assembly budget chairwoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, noted that costs were the biggest roadblocks to passing the policies. McGreevey noted that making the investment now to prevent incarceration would save the state money in the long run, and that many of the suggested fixes were addressing gaps in service in Medicaid.
New Jersey should also follow the example of other states that are getting it right, commission members said. For instance, New Jersey screens only certain people in prison for the prevalent diseases hepatitis B and C, missing up to a possible one-third of people with the illnesses.
Once New Jersey identifies someone with hepatitis, the state has to treat the individual, but the treatment is very expensive, said Aakash Shah, an emergency room doctor on the commission. But other states, like Louisiana, negotiated directly with drug manufacturers to secure a flat fee to buy the drug, at a price the state could afford.
The report outlined the gaps in medical coverage that former prisoners face, and how many people don't have access to drugs that can help deal with drug addiction, like buprenorphine, methadone or naltrexone.
"For individuals in reentry, securing treatment for addiction is — by far — their most pressing need upon release," the report said, noting that 75 percent of people in prison have suffered from substance abuse issues.
People leaving prison are often out without important documents needed to get health care or find a job, like a Medicaid card or a driver's license. The report suggests ways to make sure a person has these resources when he or she leaves.
Securing a job can also be difficult due to strict licensing requirements that disqualify former prisoners in industries like hospitality or cosmetology.
"You're getting out of prison, where you have done something wrong. You can’t get that job because you can’t get a license because you had a crime," said commission co-chairman Larry Lustberg, a lawyer at Gibbons P.C. "It's a never-ending cycle."