Transportation barriers pose significant challenges for individuals involved with the criminal justice system and those with mental and substance use disorders, especially those reentering the community following incarceration. During reentry, returning citizens face a variety of difficulties related to safety, accessing services, and meeting conditions of release, all of which can be exacerbated by insufficient access to transportation. Research indicates that transportation barriers can demonstrably increase a person’s vulnerability to other challenges, such as unemployment, food insecurity, homelessness, and more.[1]

People reentering the community from jail or prison often face specific challenges related to transportation, described as the “five As” (PDF): affordability, accessibility, applicability, availability, and awareness.[2] Many individuals do not have the financial means to own a car or regularly use public transportation. Returning citizens may lack appropriate identification to get a driver’s license or may have an infraction, such as a DUI, that keeps them from using a car even if they have one. These individuals may be eligible for Medicaid’s non-emergency medical transportation service (PDF). However, even specialized transportation services can present difficulties, such as a lack of awareness about eligibility, advance scheduling requirements, or constraints only allowing transportation to medical appointments, thus limiting individuals’ ability to use them. Rural communities often lack reliable public transit. Some communities resolve this by coordinating medical trips with other community transportation providers serving similar populations. “With so many organizations involved, human services transportation has become a complex and often fragmented system,” notes a recent report from the Transit Cooperative Research Program.[3]

The Supreme Court held in its 1999 decision Olmstead v. L.C. that individuals with disabilities had the right to participate fully in the life of the community. This includes such everyday activities as family relations, social contacts, work, education, cultural enrichment, and economic independence. “Transportation is the vital link to all of these activities,” notes a report (PDF) by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Therefore, transportation is at the very heart of community integration.”[4]

In response to the transportation challenges experienced by so many individuals exiting the justice system, two agencies have developed unique programs that directly address their transportation needs. The first is a peer-based program, presenting a solution informed by lived experience. The second is a system-based approach, demonstrating the benefits of cross-agency collaboration to reduce barriers by making changes to the infrastructure.

“A Ride Home Shows that the Community Cares”

The mission of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) is “to change lives and create safe, healthy communities by providing a support and advocacy network for and by formerly incarcerated men and women.” The organization works toward this goal through advocacy, pursuing fair policies in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and by offering a supportive network and reentry services to individuals who were formerly incarcerated.

One of the unique components of ARC is the Ride Home program, which began in 2013 as a partnership between the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School and ARC. The program’s initial goal was to provide immediate, intensive, and personalized reentry support to people released as a result of reforms to California’s sentencing laws. These reforms included California Proposition 36 (2012), also known as the “Three Strikes Reform Act,” which allowed re-sentencing for people serving life sentences, and Proposition 47 (2016), also known as “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” which reduced penalties for nonviolent felony offenses. Even after the resulting increase in individuals exiting incarceration passed, the need for reentry support remained clear.

Today, the Ride Home program’s mission is to help ease the transition for people returning home from incarceration. The Ride Home program sends a peer to meet the individual at the gate the moment they walk free and to drive them home. During the ride, the driver prepares these individuals for their first few days after release and provides tools and resources to help participants transition back into the community. The Ride Home program also brings incoming residents of ARC’s housing program directly from prison to their housing site.

“It is important to have a Ride Home program for continuity of services,” says Jacob Brevard, who served 25 years and is now the associate director of Inside Programs at ARC. “I believe the first 48 hours are the most important for a sustainable transition home.” Carlos Cervantes, who served 11 years of a determined sentence and is now a life coach and the Ride Home program manager, expands on that. “Those 48 hours are important to sustainable reentry,” he says, noting that individuals without reentry planning and services are at high risk of experiencing homelessness or returning to use if they had a substance use disorder prior to incarceration. “In contrast, the Ride Home Program prioritizes making sure the person is ready for reentry and puts in place a plan for sustainable reentry.”

All drivers for the Ride Home program are formerly incarcerated individuals. They offer newly released people an opportunity to spend time with a peer who has been through a similar experience and help them develop a practical and realistic plan for reentry. SAMHSA’s GAINS Center had the chance to talk with both a rider and a passenger over the phone and hear in real time the gratitude and passion in their voices. The passenger, Raul Rodriguez, served 21 years of a life sentence before his ride home through the program. “It feels good knowing there is someone out there that cares about you,” he says. “I have a learning disability, and I was really worried about how I was going to catch a bus home. I wish this program was started before for others who needed this service. I’ll never forget this.”

Despite having a 15-hour drive ahead of him, Moses Gallegos, who served 19 years of a life sentence, is energetic and enthusiastic about his role as a driver, saying, “These men and women deserve more than the status quo. They need these services. I love that I get to do this. It isn’t a job; it is a calling. I get to share with them a deep connection during their first 48 hours, helping to get the prison off of them.” As part of the Ride Home program, returning citizens, with the companionship of a peer driver, “get the prison off of them” by choosing and sharing their first non-prison meal, buying new clothing and toiletries, and arriving home safely.

Weighing the impact of their work, ARC staff point to the benefits that the Ride Home program provides to the returning individual and the community. “The traditional process of reentry, of being shackled and transported then put on a bus, dehumanizes the individual. We want to welcome folks back as the humans they are,” Cervantes says, and get them access to needed services and treatment as soon as possible. “We are here to make sure they are ready for the transition home.”

Humanizing the individual “helps the community 10-fold. It gives the individual confidence in their return and rehabilitation,” Brevard explains. “A ride home shows that the community cares, and this helps reduce recidivism.” Gallegos follows, “While it may be small to us, it is huge for them. I like to look at the bigger picture and the effect that we have on the entire community. It will affect the lives of their family, mothers, and children. It is a blessing.”

Support for returning citizens does not stop at drop-off. ARC also provides support for mental health, housing, education, and workforce services. The peers who drive returning citizens home are also a continued source of support. Gallegos specifies, “Our approach is not clinical. We sit down with individuals and talk about coping mechanisms, whether they are dealing with stress or anxiety. We follow up with them, and they are given contacts so they can call someone if a crisis occurs, such as being at the grocery store and there are so many people, colors, or choices that they panic.” Peer status fosters empathy for those experiencing mental health and substance use problems. “I dealt with my own mental health issues,” Gallegos says. “I was incarcerated at 16 for life and ultimately did 19 years. I experienced a lot of depression as a result, so I have a lot of empathy for individuals returning home. Being met with compassion and a person that understands makes a world of difference.”

People respond to people who care for them,” Brevard concludes.

Whatever It Takes” in Howard County, Maryland

“I’ve worked in several jurisdictions where you get released from jail, and they say, ‘Have a nice day. Here’s a bus token,’” says Mika Singer, LCPC, mental health transitional coordinator with the Howard County (Maryland) Department of Corrections. It’s a very different experience in Howard County, where she is also a member of the Criminal Justice Partnership Committee. There, the county mission is to make sure those recently released make it home. The county has a robust 10-person reentry team, including peers, to prevent homelessness among those newly released from jail. Howard County is on the 1-95 corridor, which means that only about 50 percent of the people in their jail are from the local area. “So, a lot of times, those bus passes don’t do much because they’ll get you to Howard County, but what if you have to go to Baltimore City or DC?” Singer asks. “So, we’ve bought people plane and train tickets. We drive people, or we get them an Uber—whatever it takes, we’ll make sure they get home.”

Upon release from the Howard County Detention Center, individuals leave with a Reentry ID. Through a memorandum of understanding with the county transportation department, that Reentry ID works as a bus pass for the first 60 days after release, Singer notes. In addition, the reentry team works for individuals for up to 5 years after their release. “So, anybody who needs help with getting to probation and parole, all they have to do is call their reentry worker and say, ‘Look, I’m stuck. I can’t get to my probation appointment.’ That’s fine. We’ll make it happen. We’ll come get you,” Singer says. “If you’re going to treatment, if you’re going to court, if you’re going to probation or parole, we will get you there.” Funded largely by various government grants, Singer says, these transportation services, though available for an extended period, have natural limitations. “If you’re going to hang out at your friend’s house, we can’t do that.”

In Howard County, reentry planning is something that begins the day a person enters jail. “The goal is always planning what they’re going to do when they’re released and making sure everything is covered,” Singer explains. Even those who are in and out of the detention center in less than 24 or 48 hours receive pamphlets with information on available services. “Even if all they see is an officer, it’s that officer’s responsibility to say, ‘Hey, you’re getting released, do you have a way home?’” Singer says.

Driving the Point Home

Over 600,000 people leave prison and return to their communities each year; thousands more reenter the community from the local jail. Whether programs to address transportation challenges operate through individual organizations or cross-system collaborations, the value proposition they present is clear. These efforts benefit entire communities by reducing the likelihood of probation or parole violations, enhancing the resilience of people reentering the community, and providing access to critical supports necessary for people’s recovery. More than just bringing returning citizens back, reentry transportation programs make sure they have a way forward.

[1] Anne Nordberg, Jaya B. Davis, Sara R. Leat, Stephen Mattingly, Craig Keaton, and Michael B. Mitchell, “Transportation Barriers to Successful Reentry among Returning Citizens: A Qualitative Interpretive Meta-Synthesis,” The Prison Journal 101, no. 4 (September 2021): 488–506.

[2] Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Getting There: Helping People With Mental Illnesses Access Transportation, DHHS Pub. No. (SMA) 3948, (Rockville, MD: Author, 2004).

[3] Suzie Edrington, Linda Cherrington, Jon Burkhardt, Richard Garrity, David Raphael, Stephen Borders, Ross Peterson, et al., Handbook for Examining the Effects of NEMT Brokerages on Transportation Coordination, Washington, D.C.: Transportation Research Board, 2018,

[4] Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Getting There: Helping People With Mental Illnesses Access Transportation, DHHS Pub. No. (SMA) 3948, (Rockville, MD: Author, 2004).

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