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Attorney General William Barr has ordered the release of vulnerable inmates from three federal prisons.


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 6-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 if 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 Escabedo have been approved for parole but remain behind bars waiting to start or finish classes required for release as the novel 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.”

At least 40,656 people in U.S. prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 as of June 2, including more than 6,000 people last week alone — the second highest weekly number since the start of the pandemic, according to tracking from 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 begun 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.

But prison officials in some states said pre-release 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.

Pre-release 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. 

Pre-release 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 reoffend, 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.

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“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 for 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 pre-release programming. 

Before COVID-19, inmates were transferred to a pre-release 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 pre-release programs because of social distancing concerns, inmates are taking them as correspondence courses.

In Tennessee, re-release 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, pre-release 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 reoffending.

“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.

Texas officials have no such plans. State Board of Pardons and Paroles Chair David Gutierrez wrote in a May 6 letter to a policy advisor at the governor’s office that prisoners would not be granted a parole review simply because of COVID-19.

Forty-two prisoners and seven employees at Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities had died from COVID-19, while 6,666 prisoners and 988 employees had tested positive as of June 4, agency statistics show.

Texas prisons have more coronavirus cases than those in any other state, according to data from The Marshall Project.

But state prison officials said they’re unable to waive program requirements for inmates already granted parole. Those conditions are legally mandated, Diesel said, and changes would require lawmakers’ approval. 

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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 pre-release 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.

Not enough sympathy for inmates

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 pre-release programs.

Juan Escobedo has served four years of the 20 year-sentence he received in 2016 for drunken driving. He is serving his time in the Daniel Unit in Scurry County in West Texas. 

Although there had been no cases reported within that unit at least the last time Emily Escobedo checked, she said her husband worries it is only a matter of time before COVID-19 gets there. She said he lacks cleaning supplies and he stays in his cell to lower his risk of contracting COVID-19.

Traditionally, the substance-abuse recovery program Escobedo needs to complete has only been available at the Hamilton Unit and the East Texas Treatment Facility. Escobedo would need to be transferred from Daniel Unit to one of those prisons. TDCJ has stopped transferring inmates because of the pandemic though. 

While neither Hamilton nor the East Texas Treatment Facility had active cases of COVID-19 as of June 5, more than half of Texas’ 106 prisons currently hold inmates with active COVID-19 cases. 

Emily Escobedo that’s why she wishes officials would allow her husband to take his class outside prison. 

She said her husband has completed carpentry classes in prison. He worked in the construction industry prior to being incarcerated and wants to get out so he can contribute. She said she needs help paying the mortgage and caring for their two children.

“He broke the law, he needed to serve time for that, and he did,” she said. “I’m not even saying that he shouldn’t have to complete an intensive training program — he should. But he feels like he can do that on the outside.” 

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