The coronavirus is keeping Texas prisoners who’ve been approved for parole behind bars

Texas has seen more state prisoners die with the new coronavirus than any other state prison system in America. (Jennifer Whitney for The Texas Tribune)

Thousands of Texas prisoners are stuck in limbo during the public health disaster, approved for parole yet still sitting inside disease-prone lockups as the coronavirus rages across the state.

Many have been waiting six months or longer for release. During that time, Texas has seen more state prisoners die with the virus than any other state prison system in America.

They’ve been told they’re still behind bars because there’s nowhere to send them, they need to finish a life skills program or they can’t leave until the new coronavirus is “done and over with,” according to prisoners’ responses to questionnaires sent by advocacy groups. Sometimes the prisoners aren’t told anything at all, the elation of winning parole morphing into dread as they watch prison coronavirus infections and deaths rise.

“Some of these people were eligible [for release] months and months and months ago, and they’re still there,” said Jorge Renaud, southwest regional director of policy and advocacy for LatinoJustice, one of the advocacy groups. “They are putting these people at risk unnecessarily.”

In May, more than 15,000 Texas prisoners had been approved for parole but were not yet released, according to records from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. That’s about 12% of the state prison population. About 4,300 prisoners had been granted parole at least six months earlier.

Parole releases are never immediate, and it’s a common requirement for prisoners to first undergo in-prison education or rehabilitation programming before their release. But the coronavirus has delayed some of those classes and also pushed back release for an unknown number of people who have already completed such programming or never needed to take it.

Jon Reynolds, an inmate at the geriatric Pack Unit, where state attorneys say at least 19 men have died with the virus, testified in federal court last week that he finished his board-required programming in May but has remained in the highly infected prison. He said that’s because the unit’s parole officer, who approves housing plans, hasn’t been there. State attorneys questioned if his delay was instead because his housing plan was not adequate, but Reynolds denied that.

“People are still getting sick over and over,” the 51-year-old said at a videoconference trial in a case over TDCJ’s handling of the pandemic. “I’m not understanding what it is that is keeping TDCJ from letting people go that have already completed their program.”

Other inmates whose required programming was unavailable at their prisons had to wait months while transfers between units were stopped to limit the virus’ spread. And units confirmed to have active infections — nearly 3,000 inmates had recently tested positive at dozens of prisons Wednesday — are locked down, restricting activity within and halting movement in and out of them, including releases into the free world.

A TDCJ spokesperson said that although the agency can’t release inmates during lockdowns, it has started directly releasing inmates at prisons without known infections to family instead of first moving them to a transfer facility. He added that he did not think any prison had been consistently restricted since the virus first hit the prison system in March, saying most cycled on and off lockdown, which allows for some releases. Several units have been on lockdown because of the virus for more than a month at a time, according to agency reports.

“From the very beginning of the pandemic, there became more and more issues with the way that we would normally transport folks,” spokesperson Jeremy Desel said. “We move to process them as quickly as we can, but they’re still going to need to uphold whatever conditions are set.”

No change in a time of crisis

More than 13,500 of about 130,000 TDCJ inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to agency reports. At least 94 have died with it, the highest death toll in the country among state prison systems. The virus has also infected nearly 2,900 prison employees and killed 14 people who worked in state lockups.

But despite continued pleas from inmates, their loved ones and advocates for immediate release of those who are granted parole during the public health disaster, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has repeatedly said it has not changed how it makes parole decisions. A board spokesperson said Wednesday that parole approval rates rose in the last year to an average of about 39%, but state data indicates a slight decrease in the average rate since March. The board still sets release dates far in the future or requires monthslong, in-prison programming before an inmate can be released.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who oversees the board, said in March that releasing “dangerous criminals” wasn’t the answer to controlling the virus in prison hot spots and has since remained silent on the issue. A spokesperson has not responded to repeated questions, including on Wednesday, on whether his stance changed as cases and deaths have risen behind prison walls.

Renaud said he and other advocates plan to push in the 2021 legislative session for required parole programming, like drug rehabilitation, to be permitted in the community instead of in prison. For Donald Mickens, that would mean his wife would be home with their children.

Mickens’ wife, serving a three-year stint out of Galveston County on a probation violation, was approved for parole in October. But the 41-year-old first had to complete a six-month drug rehabilitation program, Mickens said. That meant sending her to another unit, according to Mickens, a move that was delayed for months until June because of a halt in unit transfers as the virus swept through the system.

“Now she's there and they're not even doing the classes, they're just giving them paperwork underneath the door,” he said, because of a lack of counselors at the unit. “... She’s struggling real bad in there because she’s so scared she’s going to get [the coronavirus].”

For Kambri Crews, programming on the outside may have allowed her to say goodbye to her dying father in person instead of on a hard-fought FaceTime call.

Theodore "Cigo" Crews, 73, died in a prison hospital earlier this month after a late cancer diagnosis, 30 days after he’d been granted parole after serving 18 years. His daughter believes the harsh conditions and poor food inmates get in coronavirus lockdowns quickened his death. She said he lost 15 pounds from May to June.

“He would have died anyway, but it would have been nice for him to die in the free world,” Crews said.

Her father was required to take a drug and alcohol program first, she said, but she didn’t understand why he couldn’t have taken classes any other time in his nearly two decades behind bars, or outside with her.

Inmates who are set to leave on parole and aren’t required to take programming have been stuck as well during the pandemic. Long-awaited release dates are taken off the calendar when units go on or extend the medical lockdowns, and the parole board has set release dates far in the future, to the dismay of prisoners’ loved ones.

Debra Boyd’s son won parole in May, with the caveat that he first had to undergo the prisons’ life-skills program. The three-month class — which Renaud and other prison reform advocates criticize on its effectiveness — focuses on managing stress, time and money, and personal assessments. To try to hasten his homecoming, Boyd informed the parole board that her 41-year-old son had already completed the program months earlier.

His parole condition was changed after her phone call so that her son could be released without completing a program — but not until January.

“It was real exciting,” she said, when she first learned her son was approved for parole, even if he had to redo the program. “Then when everything switched around to January, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, what has happened?”

The board’s chief of staff, Timothy McDonnell, said Boyd’s son’s release was never intended to be before 2021. His release was first set to be after he completed the three-month program, which the board directed to begin in November at the earliest, McDonnell said. A future release date for parole approvals is often issued when the parole panel wants the inmate to serve more time, but not necessarily as long as it would take for the next parole review, he said.

With the second week of trial nearing an end, TDCJ continues defending itself in a case that questions whether the agency adequately protected inmates at the Pack Unit. State attorneys argued that the question of parole, which inmate Reynolds raised in his testimony, was irrelevant to the case since the lawsuit focuses on how TDCJ protects inmates. But advocates and epidemiologists have said for months that releasing inmates and reducing the prison population is the most effective strategy to promote social distancing and keep infections from spreading like wildfire among prisoners and into the community.

“There was two ways to go,” said Renaud. “Either kick everybody out who is on parole … or not let anybody go and not take anybody in and hope that little by little that the disease would just wear itself out, that it would just burn out.”