ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Joleen Valencia had resisted the temptation to count her days to freedom.
She had learned inside a New Mexico prison that tracking time only added to the anxiety of serving a two-year drug-trafficking sentence that started in the spring of 2015 — especially after her mother died and granddaughter had been born.
She wanted nothing more than to return to her family’s home amid mesas on a reservation north of Albuquerque, and to stay clean after recovering from a heroin addiction.
But rather than agonize, she kept busy. She worked daily dishwashing shifts, some lasting as long as 12 hours, to earn 10 cents an hour and eventually enough “good time” for what authorities said would be her new parole date: July 13, 2016.
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“They would tell you, don’t count your days, because it’s going to make it hard,” said Valencia, now 50. But she couldn’t resist as her parole date neared.
And that made it all the more frustrating when the day came and went.
For three more months, Valencia remained incarcerated, one of more than 1,000 inmates identified in New Mexico Corrections Department documents as serving what’s known as “in-house parole.”
An expensive and long-running problem, it routinely has resulted in corrections officials holding inmates for all or part of their parole terms.
Often, those who should be freed are held because they are unable to find or afford suitable housing outside prison. Other times, missing paperwork or administrative backlogs can rob them of the freedom they’ve earned.
This report is part of the CJ Project, an initiative to broaden the news coverage of criminal justice issues affecting New Mexico’s diverse communities, created by the Asian American Journalists Association with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. For more information: http://www.aaja.org/cj-project
In Valencia’s case, documents exchanged between the Corrections Department and CoreCivic showed that caseworkers at the facility failed to submit her files to the parole board in time for her expected release date. CoreCivic is one of three private prison companies operating lockups across the state.
The problem of in-house parole isn’t unique to New Mexico. Numerous states — Georgia, West Virginia and Nevada among them — have histories of holding inmates past their expected parole dates, with some responding to the issue with reforms.
In New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the nation, the problem persists despite efforts to address it. In an email, Mahesh Sita, a corrections spokesman, said reducing the number of release-eligible inmates — the department’s current term for those on in-house parole — is a priority, despite figures showing a struggle to overcome the problem.
A review of state data obtained through public records requests found there were 165 release-eligible inmates on in-house parole at the beginning of July of this year, slightly more than the average monthly total since January 2014.
Overall, an analysis of the data found the state spent an estimated $10.6 million in the most recent fiscal year to incarcerate the 1,000 inmates who found themselves on in-house parole — a status some on the list had for years.
“Imagine someone sitting there all those years thinking about that date,” said Sheila Lewis, a defense attorney in Santa Fe and former 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.”
More than three years’ worth of state documents shows the primary driving factor of in-house parole has been a shortage of housing and resources for felons, who must arrange for a place to live as a condition of their release on parole.
Those without money can choose to pursue one of the few coveted spots available in a state-sponsored residential treatment program, or opt for a bed at a privately operated halfway house.
The state-sponsored programs don’t demand payment in advance, either for a security deposit or first month’s rent, but halfway houses often do, requiring security deposits amounting to as much as several hundred dollars.
The fortunate ones with relatives willing to provide housing can only stay with family if a parole officer approves of the housing situation — a rule designed to prevent offenders from living among other felons or addicts.
An average of three-dozen inmates approved for release by the parole board each month from 2014 through mid-2017 remained incarcerated because they were awaiting a bed in a residential treatment program or halfway house.
Women, who comprised just more than 10 percent of the prison population, faced tougher odds in getting released on time, with officials holding them on in-house parole at two and a half times the rate of men in the recent fiscal year ending in July.
Officials attributed this, in part, to a surge in women’s incarceration rates overall and fewer community-based housing options available to them than men as they prepare to re-enter society.
“Some of us don’t have anywhere to go to,” Elizabeth Guerrero told lawmakers as they toured the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in July.
She finished her basic sentence there on May 3 and then spent six more months in the prison on in-house parole last year. “Some programs require $100 up front. I don’t have that,” she said.
Guerrero, who pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and tampering with evidence in a 2015 murder case, was released Nov. 7.
In the most extreme cases, offenders can spend their entire parole term behind bars, going from prisons directly to neighborhoods without the services or supervision that experts say can help with transitioning back into society.
The Corrections Department in the past has acknowledged this can pose a public safety problem. “Simply put, it is not in the interest of public safety,” the department said two years ago in a blog for lawmakers.
Numerous studies, including a 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts report , also have found parole is critical in monitoring inmates in the months immediately following their release. And such findings have spurred lawmakers in some states to tackle the issue.
Community-based supervision for parolees can include house checks, drug tests and curfews.
In West Virginia, for example, reports that a growing number of inmates were spending their full parole terms behind bars prompted legislation ensuring a period of community-based supervision for violent offenders.
Under the 2013 measure, inmates with violent criminal records must spend their first year after prison under state-supervision, regardless of whether they finished their parole in prison or not.
Georgia won praise in a National Institute of Corrections report for dealing with the problem a decade ago by investing more money toward community-based housing for inmates re-entering society.
In New Mexico, long-lasting solutions have been elusive, though the state, like Georgia, also put more money toward housing for parolees.
In 2016, for example, the Corrections Department contracted with charities to add more beds for inmates in re-entry programs, adding 30 for women in Los Lunas, south of Albuquerque.
But state documents and studies also show that other factors beyond housing have further complicated the problem, including administrative backlogs and incomplete parole files.
“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.
In addition to those who languished while awaiting housing, numerous inmates, like Valencia, saw their release dates come and go before ever receiving a chance to take their appeal for release before the parole board.
Often, this happened because prison caseworkers and parole officers, who are woefully understaffed, fell behind in preparing plans for the parole board to review. A report from the Legislative Finance Committee revealed last year that officers’ staffing levels at public prisons were 20 percent below where officials say they should be.
There also have been consistent shortages at private prisons, though it’s not clear by how much.
The parole board, which operates independently of the Corrections Department, reviews inmates’ appeals for release each month.
“They get scratched from the docket when we’re missing paperwork,” said Joann Martinez, the parole board’s executive director. “If we don’t have that for the parole board, the case can’t move forward.”
When cases do move forward, however, and the parole board approves an inmate’s release, more problems can emerge.
For instance, at least a dozen inmates at the start of each month since 2014, with few exceptions, were on in-house parole because their files were missing parole certificates.
Martinez said sometimes the certificates are withheld when officials learn that inmates are facing charges in another jurisdiction. She acknowledged, however, that sometimes the paperwork can “fall through the cracks” when transferred from the parole board to the Corrections Department.
“They might say, ‘We don’t have it,’ and we’ll say, ‘We mailed it two weeks ago.’ And something happened to it,” she said. “We keep a log of all these certificates that go out.”
By design, parole is supposed to offer inmates who largely have followed prison rules a chance to complete their sentences in the community while under the watchful eye of the state.
New Mexico inmates’ participation in prison drug treatment, education and work programs — like Valencia’s low-wage dishwashing job — helps them earn the credit, or “good time,” they need to become eligible for parole.
As an inmate serving time for a non-violent crime, Valencia tied back her cascading brown hair and put an apron over her Corrections Department jumpsuit, with the understanding that each kitchen shift would reduce her prison time by a day. That, however, is not how things worked out for her in the end.
“I know I put myself in there,” she said. “But I tried to do the best I could.”
Her prison term had been the result of a probation violation on a drug trafficking conviction that came in the throes of her addiction in August 2013, court records show, an undercover officer asked her if she could help him get high, and she willingly took him to a heroin dealer at a rundown hotel in Albuquerque.
She initially avoided prison with a plea deal. But less than two years into her time on probation, an officer found an open can of beer inside a vehicle in which she was a passenger, she said, prompting a judge to send her to the Northwestern New Mexico Correctional Facility.
At the start of Valencia’s sentence, all female inmates were held at the sprawling, low-slung complex operated by CoreCivic at the edge of Grants, a small town isolated by highways and high desert.
As the prison grew more crowded, it became tougher for women to gain access to programs and job opportunities that the Corrections Department said they needed to become eligible for parole.
Valencia recalls waiting in long lines in prison each morning in hopes of seeing a caseworker about her parole plan, and rarely getting the chance.
When it finally came, she said she learned that a proposal to return to her family’s home — a five-bedroom dwelling where no other felons or recovering addicts would be living — would be rejected if she proposed it for her parole. The primary reason, she said: It was on the San Felipe Pueblo Indian Reservation, an area of federal tribal land 30 miles north of Albuquerque not within the jurisdiction of the state.
Such rejections of Native Americans’ parole plans are rare, but officials say can surface when an offender’s plan requires frequent meetings with a parole officer or counselor and there’s limited transportation options in a community.
Six months ahead of her scheduled release, she submitted a new parole plan showing she secured a spot at the Pavilions, a new residential re-entry program in Los Lunas that’s run by a local nonprofit and funded in part by the state.
In 2016, corrections officials cited the crowding and limited jobs and education programs in making a case for transferring all the women out of the facility in Grants and into to two publicly operated ones.
The move the next year came amid a wave of reform efforts following a 2014 fiscal analysis from the Legislative Finance Committee that flagged the problem of in-house parole.
The study suggested lawmakers and corrections officials could save taxpayer dollars by doing away with the practice and investing instead in community-based housing alternatives to incarceration.
The cost of monitoring felons on parole can range from $40 to $80 per offender per day, while incarcerating them can be more than $100 per inmate per day.
The Corrections Department also penalized prison corporations for holding some inmates past their release date.
For July 2016, for example, documents exchanged between CoreCivic and the state showed the multi-billion dollar corporation was fined $19,150 for keeping 15 women, including Valencia, inside the Northwestern New Mexico Correctional Facility beyond their release date.
That month marked the first of three for Valencia’s stint on in-house parole, and the documents indicated CoreCivic had failed to meet deadlines in submitting her and the other women’s parole plans for approval.
But over time there were still often many more inmates on in-house parole inside the private facilities than the companies had been fined for holding. The next two months after July 2016, Valencia remained imprisoned. But, it appears the state did not penalize the company again for holding her.
Sita, the corrections spokesman, said private prisons are penalized for holding inmates if they miss deadlines but aren’t fined if an inmate remains imprisoned under circumstances beyond the company’s control.
For Maria Garley, the state’s efforts seemed to have had no impact. Garley, an ex-convict, said she served a decade-long prison sentence, and then was held on in-house parole for her entire yearlong parole term.
She was released from prison a decade ago.
Until recently, she operated a halfway house in Albuquerque, and said that only two women among dozens who had sought shelter with her in the past year and a half had been released on the date that was initially set for them. She said those dates are provided to the inmates months in advance and also provided to her so she can plan for the women’s arrival.
“It’s almost commonplace, unfortunately,” Garley said of in-house parole.
Those who land on the state’s in-house parole list often find they have few legal options in demanding their release because parole is viewed by the courts as a privilege bestowed upon inmates and not a right.
In the past, the courts have struck down lawsuits brought by inmates held past their release date, finding that corrections officers and officials aren’t liable when they mistakenly hold someone on parole, said Richardson, with the Koch Institute.
“To the extent you can find people held purposely, you will find lawsuits,” he said.
But short of that, he said, it doesn’t seem likely the courts might side with inmates.
Sheila Lewis, the Santa Fe attorney, meanwhile, sees only a narrow path for possible challenges, saying that inmates should have some expectation that their appeals for release will be reviewed under a fair process.
And the process may become inherently less fair for those held because they are too poor to afford a first month’s rent or a security deposit at a halfway house.
“To me, you may not have a right to parole. But if you’re going to have parole on the books, then you have to do it constitutionally,” she said. “I think that making poverty an impediment to release is unconstitutional.”
But in prison, she adds, few have money for a lawyer or access to one.
In Valencia’s case, she feared she would lose her good time — or worse, be forced into solitary confinement — if she complained or filed any grievances.
Her last day as a prisoner finally came on her birthday, Oct. 17, 2016.
She had been at the publicly operated Springer Correctional Facility less than two weeks when a corrections officer shouted her name into her pod, saying she would be among a half dozen or so prisoners released that day.
She received no explanation as to why she stayed in prison lasted three months longer than expected, or why authorities finally decided to let her go to the residential program in Los Lunas.
“You never got any straight answers,” she said. “You all of a sudden just get released.”
After nearly a year in the program at Los Lunas, Valencia is now serving the final months of her parole in Albuquerque, while preparing to spend more time again with her family at San Felipe Pueblo once it ends.
Soft-spoken yet matter-of-fact about her difficult past, Valencia for years felt too ashamed of her addiction, and the depths she would go for it, to face her family and own children. Now, she hopes the chance to be more involved in their lives again and to see her granddaughter more helps her overcome the grief and frustration that’s lingered since prison, her time on in-house parole, and her mother’s death.
“It’s like I don’t know how to feel, how to act, how to be,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “It’s messed me up but it’s still not going to take me down that road of destructive behavior.”