Advocates want Texas inmates granted parole freed
State Board of Pardons and Paroles Chair David Gutierrez said inmates wouldn't be granted a parole review simply because of COVID-19
By Andrea Ball, Jessica Priest and Katie Hall
AUSTIN, Texas — One month ago, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles approved Juan Escobedo's parole request. But before the state will release the 41-year-old inmate, who is serving a sentence for a third drunken driving offense, he must complete a six-month substance abuse recovery program.
Escobedo is still waiting to begin the program. Meanwhile, his wife said, he is watching with fear as coronavirus spreads like wildfire in prisons across Texas and the country, wondering every day whether his punishment will become a death sentence.
Emily Escobedo called the situation "nightmarish."
"We're just like, 'Come on and send him home before it gets there,'" she said. "Why are we waiting?"
Across the nation, thousands of inmates like Escobedo have been approved for parole but remain behind bars waiting to start or finish classes required for release as the coronavirus stalks U.S. prisons. Their families and inmate advocates are pushing officials for their release, saying they can complete life skills, recovery or other programs online or in the community.
"This is low-hanging fruit," said David Raybin, a Nashville lawyer who has been advocating for prisoners' release. "It's a benign thing to do, and I don't know why it isn't happening."
More than 40,000 people in U.S. prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 as of June 2, according to tracking by the Marshall Project. At least 495 have died, the nonprofit media outlet found.
Stemming the spread of this coronavirus behind bars is challenging, experts said, because people are in close quarters and have limited ways to clean themselves and their surroundings.
Some states — and even the federal government — have recognized that and have started releasing certain inmates.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has placed more than 3,300 inmates on home confinement. California prison officials granted early releases to 3,500 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who were within 60 days of their earliest discharge date. As of early May, Wisconsin had released about 1,600 inmates, most of whom had been imprisoned for violating terms of their probation, parole or extended supervision.
Fears of recidivism
But prison officials in some states said prerelease programming is critical to ensuring inmates don't wind up back in prison. Coronavirus fears, they said, don't change that.
"It would be a disservice to the hard-working, law-abiding citizens of this state to react in a way that jeopardizes or compromises their ability to live without fear of being further victimized," said Dustin Krugel, a spokesman for the Tennessee Board of Parole.
Prerelease programs, Krugel said, address behavioral issues such as addiction, stress and anger, help inmates transition back into the community and reduce recidivism.
In Tennessee, some 1,300 inmates have been granted parole but await release.
Prerelease programs are necessary and effective, Raybin said, but weighed against the possibility of getting people sick, he said inmates should be able to complete those programs in the community.
Doug Smith, senior policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said educational programs held in the community for people being released from prison are often more effective and less expensive than ones held in prison.
It would be a mistake, he said, not to release people early out of fear they would re-offend, because there's no data to suggest that's true. Texas has, in fact, reduced recidivism by 25% over the last 25 years while also increasing the rate at which it grants parole.
"They did it by connecting people with programming," he said, "not keeping people in prison."
In Texas, nearly 15,000 have been granted parole but remain incarcerated. Most, like Escobedo, are either enrolled in a class or pending placement in a class that must be completed before their release.
"While COVID-19 is running rampant, we have people who could potentially no longer be a burden on the state," said Maggie Luna, a policy fellow with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "The more people who are in prison, the more the infection spreads."
Responding to COVID-19
Talk of early release for parolees stuck in limbo comes at a time when Texas inmates have sued the state prison agency over policies they say don't adequately protect elderly and chronically ill inmates.
Inmates at the Pack Unit, a prison near College Station, have asked for more protective equipment, social distancing and cleaning supplies to protect them from catching the highly contagious virus.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has changed the way it releases inmates and the way it administers prerelease programming.
Before COVID-19, inmates were transferred to a prerelease facility before being sent home. Now, they are released directly from the facility where they served their sentence, TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel said. And rather than cancel prerelease programs because of social distancing concerns, inmates are taking them as correspondence courses.
In Tennessee, prerelease programming has continued, but in smaller groups to adhere to CDC social distancing guidelines. Class hours have been reduced so multiple groups can meet, and inmates in quarantine cannot attend, said Robert Reburn, a prison spokesman.
In Montana, where some 80 inmates were granted parole but remain behind bars, prerelease programming continues but in groups of fewer than 10, and video conferencing is used whenever possible, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Carolynn Bright said.
The Montana Board of Pardons and Paroles is considering early release for some 300 additional inmates not currently granted parole but who are at higher risk for coronavirus. This comes after Gov. Steve Bullock directed the board to look at inmates who are older, have certain medical conditions, are pregnant or are nearing their release date.
So far, Bright said, the board has approved eight out of the 300, and they have been released.
Montana Board of Parole and Pardons Chairwoman Annette Carter said, however, that officials doing the review will first consider whether inmates have taken steps to reduce their likelihood of re-offending.
"This is how we do our part to help ensure the safety of Montana residents, and facilitate the success of offenders when they return to Montana communities," Carter wrote in a statement.
In Texas, a call for change
Texas officials have no such plans. State Board of Pardons and Paroles Chair David Gutierrez wrote in a May 6 letter to a policy adviser at the governor's office that prisoners would not be granted a parole review simply because of COVID-19.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said laws don't need to be changed. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott could issue an executive order allowing parole-approved inmates to complete prerelease programs at home online.
"Can you imagine what it does to an inmate and the family to hear after many years, 'You're approved for parole,' but it's gotten worse because you're locked in your cell and there's a danger of the coronavirus?" he said.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman did not respond to USA TODAY's questions for this story.
Even before the pandemic, prisoners approved for parole sometimes waited several months to get into a class the parole board required them to complete before being released, said Helen Gaebler, a senior research attorney at the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law at the University of Texas at Austin.
Gaebler said one of her clients approved for parole in September didn't get into a class she was required to complete until January.
Rehabilitation programs are traditionally underfunded and there is not enough public sympathy for inmates for officials to invest more in them, said Wanda Bertram with the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that conducts research on prisons.
"It's easy to ignore them or let programs for those people fall by the wayside without facing public backlash," Bertram said, adding that there is no comprehensive number on how many parole-approved inmates in the United States are being held up by prerelease programs.
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