"Everything was different." Former inmates adjust to outside life as Virginia ends COVID early release

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Posted at 7:31 AM, Jul 12, 2021

After spending years behind bars, adjusting to life "outside" can be a big challenge for any former inmate. Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic and you have an experience that very few can understand.

But that was the reality for more than 2,100 state inmates let out early through Virginia's pandemic-related early release program, which began in April 2020 in response to COVID-19.

The program ended on July 1.

"COVID-19 exposed a lot of inefficiencies in the Department of Corrections," said Richard Walker, Founder and CEO of a non-profit called Bridging the Gap in Virginia, which helps newly-released inmates transition to a life a freedom. "I'm hoping, beyond the pandemic, that they continue to release individuals from incarceration."

Walker founded the Richmond-area organization in 2009 following his own experience in struggling to find a job after serving time in prison. As a result, Bridging the Gap helps former inmates with employment, housing, voting rights and more.

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Richard Walker, CEO and Founder of Bridging the Gap in Virginia, sits with a 73-year-old former inmate he helped get released in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, Walker says he's helped 15 senior inmates get let out under what's called "Compassionate Release," due to their status as geriatrics.

Although not officially released under the state's COVID-19 program, Walker says the pandemic-related challenges are the same.

"Nervous, not a strong footing on what to do next. You know, not being able to really get out because COVID and everyone was under restriction," he said.

With help from a local property management company and a property owner, Walker says he was able to secure five homes in Hampton and Newport News where former inmates can live while getting back on their feet.

Two of them agreed to speak with News 3 about their experience on the condition their identities and location not be revealed.

"Coming out it was a sense, it wasn't much different than being inside (prison) because you couldn't really do a lot of moving around," said one man, 68, of being released during the pandemic. "I accepted the fact that going into stores, I had to have that mask on."

The man, originally from North Carolina, told News 3 he had spent 39 years in prison. His roommate, a 73-year-old man originally from Portsmouth, spent 16 years behind bars.

"It didn't really bother me that much until people started dying regularly," said the 73-year-old of COVID-19. "It really got to me then, so I've been on the, would you say, alert side around people at certain times but so far it's pretty good being out."

Both have been out just over a year and say there's been much adjustment, like saving up to buy a car or learning how to use a smartphone; experiences so many others take for granted.

"I'm just thanking God each day and trying to survive," the first man said.