by Ed Lyon
Parole is generally defined as conditional release from prison before a sentence has expired. But in New Mexico, every month dozens of “release-eligible” offenders join a pool of paroled state prisoners who nevertheless remain incarcerated. Called “in-house parole,” the practice affects nearly 1,000 prisoners a year at an estimated cost of $10.6 million annually. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.42].
The problem is especially acute for New Mexico’s female prisoners. Women make up a little over 10 percent of the prison population – a percentage that is steadily growing. There are fewer release facilities available for female parolees per capita than their male counterparts; as a result, up to two-and-a-half times as many female parolees as male parolees remained in prison at the end of the 2017 fiscal year.
Missing paperwork and administrative backlogs are sometimes to blame. At the Northwestern New Mexico Correctional Facility near Grants, documents exchanged by the state Corrections Department (DOC) and private prison operator CoreCivic (formerly CCA) indicated that caseworkers at the facility failed to submit files to the parole board – which is separate from the DOC – in time for the expected release date of prisoner Joleen Valencia in July 2016.
“They would tell you, don’t count your days, because it’s going to make it hard,” said the 50-year-old grandmother, who was imprisoned in 2015 on a two-year sentence for drug trafficking. “I know I put myself in there. But I tried to do the best I could.”
“They get scratched from the docket when we’re missing paperwork,” acknowledged Joann Martinez, executive director of the state’s parole board. “If we don’t have that for the parole board, the case can’t move forward.”
But even some cases that do proceed get snagged by paperwork that “fall[s] through the cracks” when transferred from the board to the DOC, she added.
A 2014 fiscal analysis by the state Legislative Finance Committee highlighted the cost of in-house parole – the difference between the expense of monitoring ex-prisoners on parole, which ranges from $40 to $80 per offender per day, and the cost of keeping them incarcerated, which can top $100 per prisoner per day.
DOC spokesman Mahesh Sita said private prison operators can be penalized for holding prisoners past their release dates. CoreCivic was fined $19,950 in July 2016 for keeping 15 women, including Valencia, beyond their release dates. For the next two months, however, while Valencia remained imprisoned, the company was not fined. Sita said that was likely because the circumstances of the delayed release were beyond the company’s control – even though documents implicated CoreCivic staff in the mishandling of Valencia’s paperwork.
“It’s almost commonplace, unfortunately,” said former prisoner Maria Garley.
Released from prison a decade ago, Garley was held on in-house parole until she completed her entire ten-year sentence. She now operates a halfway house in Albuquerque, where she said only two women of dozens who have applied in the past 18 months were freed on their initially-scheduled release date.
More than bureaucratic problems, the main reason for in-house parole is an acute shortage of halfway houses and transitional facilities, like the one Garley runs. Prisoners with relatives willing to take them in must wait for both the residence and its occupants to be vetted by parole authorities, in an effort to keep parolees away from other felons and drug users.
When Valencia was ready to submit a release plan to the DOC, she learned her request was doomed because even though the family home where she wanted to go had no other felons or drug users residing there, it was on a federal Indian reservation outside the state’s jurisdiction.
Six months before her scheduled release, she submitted a plan to take a spot she had reserved at the Pavilions, a new residential re-entry program in Los Lunas run by a local nonprofit and partially funded by the state. Yet due to missing documents that had been lost between CoreCivic and the DOC, she spent three months as a “release-eligible prisoner” before finally being sent to Pavilions in October 2017.
State-sponsored programs and transitional facilities, like the one that accepted Valencia, do not require advance down payments or deposits, but most halfway houses do. Since it falls upon prisoners to arrange acceptable housing prior to being released on parole, money is usually a driving factor in avoiding in-house parole.
“Some programs require $100 up front. I don’t have that,” said Elizabeth Guerrero, who remained on in-house parole at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility until she completed her full sentence in November 2016 – six months after finishing her basic sentence for false imprisonment and tampering with evidence in a 2015 murder case.
“Some of us don’t have anywhere to go to,” she noted.
“Imagine someone sitting there all those years thinking about that [release] date,” said Sheila Lewis, a Santa Fe defense attorney who formerly served as director of the New Mexico Women’s Justice Project.
“I think it’s psychologically cruel to tell somebody that if you follow all the rules and you don’t lose any of your good time, you’ll be out in time for your son’s graduation from high school and they look forward to it,” she said. “And they miss it.”
Many independent studies – including a 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts report – have found that parole supervision is a crucial part of re-assimilation into society for former prisoners. For those on in-house parole, state officials acknowledge that the lack of opportunity to transition from prison to society is “not in the interest of public safety.”
New Mexico officials have taken steps to increase post-release housing by contracting with non-profit organizations. They hope to replicate the success in Georgia, which began investing more money toward community-based housing for prisoners re-entering society a decade ago.
In 2013, West Virginia passed legislation to thwart the growing number of prisoners who, like Guerrero, serve their full sentences behind bars and are then released into society without any help to make the transition. State prisoners with violent criminal records must now spend their first year after prison under supervision, even if they completed their entire sentence.
In New Mexico, the problem is made thornier by both a lack of transitional housing and bureaucratic tangles blamed on chronic understaffing throughout the DOC and among its private prison contractors.
“What it shows to me is that as we incarcerate more people, the prisons will be harder to manage, especially in places where there aren’t as many resources,” said Jordan Richardson, a senior policy and research analyst at the Charles Koch Institute.
He noted that courts have thus far dismissed lawsuits filed by prisoners challenging in-house parole. “To the extent you can find people held purposely, you will find lawsuits,” Richardson observed.
But Lewis, the defense attorney from Santa Fe, said prisoners who are denied access to parole because they lack funds to pay a deposit for post-release housing may have valid claims.
“I think that making poverty an impediment to release is unconstitutional,” she argued.
Sources: www.aaja.org, www.santafemexican.com, www.usnews.com
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