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Overdetention: When Completing a Prison Sentence Just Isn’t Enough

Overdetention: When Completing a Prison Sentence Just Isn't Enough

by David M. Reutter

One of the most basic functions of a prison system is releasing prisoners when their sentences expire. In April 2007, the Massachusetts Department of Correction (MDOC) admitted its system for determining sentence expiration dates was a "mess," resulting in 14 known cases of prisoners being held beyond when they should have been released. The MDOC is not the only prison system with such problems.

The length of overdetentions in the MDOC ranged from one day to four years. The most egregious case involved prisoner Rommel Jones. Since the 1980s, Jones has been in and out of prison due to theft-related charges to feed his drug addiction. In 1988 he received a 20-year prison sentence and a concurrent 10-year term.

Over the next ten years Jones was paroled three times, once for six years, but was returned to prison. His parole violations were usually for drug possession. Jones had another problem that contributed to his being unable to cope with society: He heard voices and had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

In May 2005, while incarcerated, Jones heard a voice that told him he was going home the next day. The following morning he packed his property.

"I'm leaving today," he told the guards. "My sentence is over." That declaration landed Jones in a cell on mental health watch at a maximum security prison adjacent to the minimum security facility where he had been serving time.

Normally, the voices that Jones heard were bad. In this case the voice was correct. In fact, Jones' sentence had been over for years, yet officials kept assuring him that he still had time to do. It was known among MDOC prisoners that they had to keep up on their sentence calculation.

"If you don't write in to get your dates calculated, they beat you out of good time," said Jones. "You've got to stay up on it." One group of people that would be expected to stay up on the calculation of prisoners' sentences is the parole board.

When the board saw Jones on May 21, 2002, they denied his petition for parole. If prison and parole board officials had been doing their job, Jones would have been released on May 31, 2002 when his sentence expired. Instead, he was not released until July 5, 2006.

The erroneous calculation of Jones' release date was only discovered due to investigative reporting by the Boston Globe. Prison officials said the error had no real effect on Jones' life; they claim he would have been taken to a mental hospital had he been set free as scheduled. Jones disagreed.

"They would have sent me to the [Shattuck] Hospital the next week, and I would have been on the street," he said. "Because of my commitment ends, they can't hold me. When my sentence is over, they can't hold me no more. They've got to let me go."

Jones' mother died while he was illegally held in prison, and he missed her wake. He also lost contact with his daughter. "My daughter doesn't even want to talk to me anymore," he stated. "We used to write each other like once or twice a week. She just got tired of praying and waiting--nothing happened."

After he was belatedly set free, Jones was not informed that he had been held long after his sentence ended. Prison officials blamed his mental illness. "I think we could be criticized for explaining it to someone--with the history of mental illness that individual has," said Kathleen M. Dennehy, MDOC's commissioner at the time of Jones' release.

"She doesn't know me," replied Jones. "She's saying they made a decision not even to say anything because they didn't think that I would be intelligent enough to understand. That's horrible. That's one of the saddest excuses that I've ever heard. All she had to do is just try me. I'm more intelligent than they know." Jones was informed of his overdetention by a Globe reporter.

The truth of the matter is that MDOC officials were more likely trying to keep the quagmire of their sentence calculation problems hidden from view, to limit their liability. One veteran MDOC employee, Jean Lahousse, said she was transferred in retaliation for complaining that sloppy work was keeping prisoners beyond their release dates. Lahousse later won a whistleblower lawsuit.

During that litigation, Dennehy testified at a deposition that MDOC's sentence computation system had problems. "I think it is fair to call it a mess," she said. Dennehy acknowledged that "You can't trust the dates in the system," and said some prison sentences "need to be manually verified."

Despite that 2005 acknowledgment, the MDOC continued to rely upon its $12.2 million Inmate Management System (IMS), which went on-line in 2004, to determine prisoner release dates. Those dates were not even calculated centrally; they were calculated at individual prisons.

"The people in the central office just weren't seeing this early on, and the people in the institutions weren't knowledgeable enough to do the job," said James R. Pingeon, director of litigation for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. "It's people's liberty. It seems to me there should not be any mistakes." Effective June 1, 2007, calculation of prisoner release dates will be handled by MDOC's central office.

MDOC commissioner Dennehy was asked by the governor's office to step down, and she was replaced by James R. Bender in April 2007 on an interim basis. "None of this is acceptable," said Kevin M. Burke, the state's Public Safety Commissioner. "There is no reason for any kind of error given the system and the numbers of lawyers who examine these cases. And the governor feels the same way."

Former prisoners like Jones, who were held beyond their release dates, were eventually sent a letter by MDOC advising them of the error. Another prisoner, Lawrence R. Burhoe, who was initially told he had been overdetained by 34 days, was later found to have served more than two years past his sentence expiration date.

Holding prisoners beyond their scheduled release is not confined to the MDOC. In Palm Beach County, Florida, it was confirmed in May 2007 that six prisoners were kept in jail for two days to a month after prosecutors had dropped charges against them. All of the prisoners were indigent; they included a deaf-mute, non-English speakers and a teenage girl.

The reason for the overdetentions boiled down to communication: The orders that dropped the charges were not communicated from prosecutors and court clerks to the jail. Palm Beach County officials are working to avoid similar incidents in the future.

In April 2004, a federal class-action lawsuit was filed that alleged thousands of people in the Atlanta area had been detained more than 24 hours beyond their release dates. That case, Powell v. Barrett, USDC ND GA, Case No. 04-01100-cv-RWS-1, is still pending. Paperwork mistakes at the Fulton County Jail also resulted in an Atlanta child molester being held almost two years longer than ordered by the court; Calvin T. McGee II is suing the court clerk's office and is seeking $2.5 million in damages.

In 2001, Los Angeles County paid $27 million to settle lawsuits brought by people who were kept in jail after they were ordered released by the courts. [See: PLN, Jan. 2003, p.14]. More recently, in 2005, Los Angeles County settled a parole violator?s overdetention suit for $80,000. [See: PLN, Aug. 2005, p.26].

Overdetentions were also widespread in the Louisiana justice system following Hurricane Katrina. [See: PLN, May 2007, p.18.]

As for Rommel Jones, almost ten months after the state said it would make amends for the four years he spent in prison beyond his release date, no settlement had been paid and no apology offered. "The DOC's failure to apologize to Mr. Jones for the mistakes that cost him four years of his life, or even to tell him about the mistakes, shows the hypocrisy of what DOC professes are its core values: Responsible, Respectful, Honest, Caring," said Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services litigation director Jim Pingeon. Pingeon filed a lawsuit on Jones' behalf on November 19, 2007, seeking damages for "serious emotional and physical harm."

The lawsuit is still pending and is in settlement negotiations. Previous settlement discussions were unsuccessful, as the state had insisted that any settlement offer be kept secret from other former prisoners who were overdetained. See: Jones v. Commonwealth of Mass., Suffolk Superior Court (MA), Case No. 07-5083.

Sources: Boston Globe,, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Related legal case

Jones v. Commonwealth of Mass.