People Need Transportation Access After Release from Jail and Prison

Sam McCann Senior Writer
Oct 05, 2023

During the nearly seven months he was held in Los Angeles County’s deadly Men’s Central Jail, Marcus Lane didn’t think he’d ever see the outside of it again. So, when he was finally released in May 2023, he couldn’t hold back tears.

“The second I walked out of the damn place, after seeing what I’ve seen, I [shed] tears. I cried the first five, 10 minutes of me being out,” Lane said. “I was so happy.”

Then he realized he was in an unfamiliar area; he felt unsafe, and he had no idea how he’d get home.

Lane was not far from Union Station, where he could catch a train home, but couldn’t afford the fare. The only things he had on him were a small clear property bag, a dead iPhone, and his green and pink release slips. The jail had even taken his shoelaces from him, so his shoes flapped open. And to make matters worse, he was still recovering from a torn ACL he had suffered during his arrest in November.

Hopping the turnstile was out of the question: Lane was not going to risk losing his newfound freedom. With no better alternative, he had to walk. It took him 90 minutes to limp his way across Los Angeles. During that slow trudge, he was stopped by police who demanded to know where he was going. He waved his release slips at them, but still felt certain they were going to send him right back to Men’s Central.

The police eventually let him go without an arrest, and Lane made it home safely that day. But his experience underlines the immediate obstacle transportation access poses to people returning from jail and prison.

It’s a challenge that persists after release. One survey found that more than one-third of people released from incarceration have difficulty obtaining a car for work or emergencies. Nearly a quarter of people reported having trouble accessing public transportation. That lack of access poses logistical problems like those Lane faced on his slog home upon release. It also introduces long-term difficulties that can prevent people from holding a job, supporting their families, or meeting parole or probation requirements.

The stability that reliable and affordable transportation provides allows people to avoid cycles of rearrest. Studies show that transportation access lowers the chances of recidivism, and programs that have successfully mitigated rearrest rates treat transportation as an essential service for their clients.

Transportation barriers can also prevent people from getting the services they need. One study found that 17.5 percent of people on parole did not obtain necessary substance use treatment because of inconsistent transportation.

Despite the clear benefits, the kind of transportation support jurisdictions provide to recently incarcerated people varies widely. Federal prisons are required to provide some form of transportation from the prison upon release, as are some state prisons. Many local jails, however, do not even provide that. And the kind of long-term access to transportation that allows people to build stability after incarceration often remains out of reach.

There’s a gulf in transportation access between rural and urban areas that is particularly acute for people returning home from incarceration. For people in rural communities, a survey found that transportation barriers were the number one obstacle to complying with parole and probation requirements.

Such limited access to transportation can trap recently incarcerated people in cycles that are difficult to escape. That’s exactly what happened to Stephanie Jeffcoat. In 2016, she was arrested in San Bernardino, California, while she was living in Orange County, nearly three hours away by public transport. As part of her release conditions, Jeffcoat was required to check in every week in San Bernardino. Usually, her case would have been transferred to Orange County for post-release supervision, but because she was experiencing homelessness at the time and could not provide an address, she was forced to make the weekly journey. San Bernardino County provided her bus tokens, but she still had to make the onerous trip back and forth to comply with her release conditions. Over the next couple of years, Jeffcoat was arrested several more times, often because she was experiencing homelessness. She would be arrested in Orange County, but because her case was in San Bernadino, police would bring her there and detain her hours away from her community. Upon her release, she would have to figure out how she was going to get back to Orange County.

“I would just be left to find my own way back,” Jeffcoat said. “Oftentimes that involved having to panhandle just to get money for either a train ticket or the bus to get back down to Orange County.”

Jeffcoat felt trapped by her inability to get to places where she could receive services that would help her escape that cycle. It also made it unnecessarily difficult to keep her job—she found herself making a six-hour roundtrip to complete four-hour shifts. That schedule made it much more challenging to keep herself steady and build a community.

Jeffcoat only found stability once she was able to secure consistent, affordable transportation through Chrysalis, which provided her with free public transportation in Los Angeles. Shortly after being connected with Chrysalis, she broke her cycle of rearrests and is now pursuing a degree in political science at California State University, Fullerton.

There’s currently a push to expand public funding for the kind of subsidized transportation that provided Jeffcoat the breathing room needed to steady her life. This summer, Representative Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri introduced the Transportation for Reentry Act to Congress, which would provide $40 million to guarantee free public transit services to people recently released from prison. Vera has endorsed the legislation.

“Whether it is helping folks commute to a quality job, secure affordable housing, comply with release conditions, or access other critical community services, the Transportation for Reentry Act will give formerly incarcerated individuals greater stability as they seek to stand independently,” Rep. Cleaver said.

Mass incarceration drains more than $80 billion a year in public money; by comparison, $40 million is a tiny investment. Money toward reentry services provides enormous returns, including breaking cycles of recidivism, strengthening communities, and reducing crime in the long term. As members of Congress work to pass this bill, state and local legislatures can take the lead in creating and expanding programs that give people returning from jails and prisons a chance to rebuild their lives and reintegrate into their communities. That must include transportation access not just in urban areas—where free public transit makes an enormous difference—but in rural areas where public transit does not currently exist. That means reconceiving public transit infrastructure connectivity as an investment in both public safety and economic justice.

“When it comes to [reentry], there are so many things that need to be fixed,” said Jeffcoat. “And, of course, we can’t just address them all with just one piece of legislation. It’s going to happen bit by bit. But I think this is a step in the right direction.”