Freed From Prison After 26Years—Into a Coronavirus HotspotDuring the COVID-19 crisis, people coming home after decades behind bars find loved ones in quarantine, dire job prospects and overwhelmed social services agencies.

Craig Rixner, moments after he was released from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, in March. ANDREW HUNDLEY

Craig Rixner walked out of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, last Wednesday after nearly 26 years in prison. It was a joyful day—filled with shrimp po boys, new clothes from Walmart and texts from many of his 28 nieces and nephews—but one with an ominous edge. Rixner was returning to a city, state and country that had mostly shut down during an unprecedented pandemic.

“It was beautiful walking out of the prison, but it was also scary,” Rixner said in a phone call the next day. “Because I didn’t know what I was walking into.” His 83-year-old mother, who breathes with an oxygen tank, couldn’t be there to greet him—she was sheltering-in-place in New Orleans. Waiting for him in the parking lot were the executive director of the nonprofit Louisiana Parole Project, which had fought for his release, and the law student who worked on his case. Rixner, despite the warnings, gave her a hug. 

Coming home after decades behind bars is always disorienting. But for the people being released in the time of coronavirus, the experience is particularly jarring—trading the fear of getting sick in captivity for a curtailed, isolated kind of freedom. Nonprofits and social service agencies that support them are overwhelmed, short-staffed or moving most of their programs online. Family members they’ve waited years to reunite with are huddled at home. Food service and other industries that might hire a formerly incarcerated applicant have been decimated. And many small, everyday liberties are now a public health risk.

“Before coronavirus, where the average person dreaded going to the grocery store, my clients looked for a reason [to go]. Little things like that bring them joy,” said Andrew Hundley, director of the Louisiana Parole Project, which helps incarcerated Louisianans prepare for parole hearings and supports them after their release. “Our clients are in some sense better emotionally prepared [for distancing]. But you want to be around people and in public places… so bad, because you’ve been in isolation for so long.”

Many service providers say they’ve been struck by their clients’ resilience as the free world unravels. Some have been emotionally supporting family members, sharing tools they used in prison to structure and pass time. Mostly, they are grateful to be facing COVID-19 on this side of the prison walls. “If it spreads inside the prison, those guys are really scared. They walk around with handkerchiefs around their face,” Rixner said. “The guys in prison feel there’s nothing going to be done for them, that they’re just going to let them die.”

Rixner worried he might not get out at all. Within prisons and in online forums for family members of incarcerated people, many are confused about whether releases are still happening during statewide shutdowns. “They were saying, ‘they ain’t letting nobody out. You gonna be here for a while,’” Rixner said, of the rumors spreading inside. He had been approved for parole on March 11, and worried up until the day before his release that prison officials would not let him go. (All parole hearings in Louisiana have since been suspended.)

Attorneys and advocates across the country are pressing states to free even more people, regardless of whether they’ve finished their sentence. Last week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the federal Bureau of Prisons to place more “at-risk inmates who are non-violent” on home confinement, to protect some of the oldest and sickest in their custody. Local jurisdictions across the country have been releasing people from jail and prison to ease overcrowding. But what awaits them when they come out to a socially distanced world in the middle of an economic crisis?

Groups supporting prison re-entry are scrambling to adapt. Many organizations used to connect with clients while they were still incarcerated, to make a plan for release. But as prisons nationwide ban visits and volunteer programs to deter the virus’s spread, it’s getting harder to reach people inside. Advocates and attorneys are trying to arrange phone calls or video visits instead, though some say corrections officials have been unresponsive. Most check-ins with parole or probation officers are now by phone.

Organizations that provide walk-in services are also getting creative. A New Orleans nonprofit called The First 72+ has offices and transitional housing across the street from the Orleans Parish Prison, so people could walk straight from the prison to meet a counselor, set up a doctor’s appointment or apply for benefits. Now, instead of providing in-person assistance, they keep a cordless phone in the mailbox on their front porch, alongside a list of mentors’ phone numbers. Residents watch to see if someone uses the phone, then wipe it down with disinfectant.

“Our residents were adamant that we provide as many services as possible,” said co-director Kelly Orians. “They were the first to recognize that it’s going to be devastating when you realize this moment you were looking forward to for decades might be a part of one of the worst moments in human history.”

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How to make an innocent client plead guilty

Jeffrey D. Stein is a public defender in Washington, D.C.

Your client is desperate, stripped of freedom and isolated from family. Such circumstances make those accused of crimes more likely to claim responsibility, even for crimes they did not commit. A 2016 paper analyzing more than 420,000 cases determined that those who gained pretrial release were 15.6 percentage points less likely to be found guilty. Not surprisingly, prosecutors commonly condition plea offers on postponing hearings where defendants may challenge their arrests and request release.

In what little time exists before the plea expires, you dispatch your overworked investigator to identify, find and interview witnesses. In federal and in many local courts, the prosecution is not obligated to reveal its witnesses before trial. You and your investigator do your best to assess whether the case rests on unreliable eyewitnesses, faulty assumptions or witnesses with reasons to fabricate an account, which you cannot fully explore because — remember — the prosecution has not even disclosed who they are.

Why not ask your client for leads? That might work if the person were guilty. Innocent clients are generally the least helpful, because they often cannot tell you what they don’t know.

You lay out options for your client. You could go to trial, but that might mean waiting in jail for months, if not years, before a jury hears the case.

The idealist in you — the one who enrolled in law school to “change the system” and to fight for justice on behalf of those who need it most — hopes your client will proclaim a decision to go to trial. But a wary voice in the back of your head reminds you of the risk and life-altering consequences of losing.

You think back to a man who once visited your office for help getting the record of his sole conviction sealed. Before the conviction, he had a job, a girlfriend and a newborn daughter. Then he lost a drug case in which a pistol was found nearby. At sentencing, the judge acknowledged the inappropriateness of the five-year mandatory minimum and even asked the prosecution to consider dismissing the charge that carried the mandatory time. It didn’t. When he eventually got out, you couldn’t even help him seal his record so he could move forward with his life because, in your jurisdiction, felonies can never be sealed.

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MY CLIENT, TRAVIS RUNNELS, DID NOT DESERVE TO DIE. The death penalty is the rot at the core of our culture and our values.

The Texas death chamber is painted teal, like a doctor’s surgical scrubs. The tiny room, barely large enough to hold the gurney that my client Travis Runnels was strapped to, was antiseptic in its cruelty. Travis was already in position when my co-counsel Janet VanderZanden and I, along with three of Travis’s close friends, entered the cramped observation room. Travis was alone in the death chamber on the other side of the plexiglass, lying prone with his right arm held out to his side, and a needle in his skin ready to fill him with poison. A microphone hung from the ceiling just above his head, ready to record his last words, but Travis refused to participate in that grim ritual.

Travis instead spent his final moments sharing a kind smile and mouthing “I love you” to his friends. His final actions reaffirmed what he had already told us: that he had been strong to the end, that our lives would go on, and that he would no longer have to bear the torture of isolation on death row.

This was classic Travis. He had been sent to death row for killing Stanley Wiley, a factory supervisor at the prison where Travis was serving a 70-year sentence for robbery. Since landing on death row, however, he changed his life around. READ THE REST

I am not troubled about the fact that you or your loved one may be guilty of the crime that you or they are in prison for.

After doing a number of projects through VTTV, I’ve noticed that occasionally the loved ones of supporters of people who I’ve been asked to create platforms for get very concerned and sometimes frankly obsessive about communicating to me of either the innocence or the unfair prosecution of them or their loved ones.

To that I say first, I never have to be convinced of the unfairness of the American court system.

The second thing I need to communicate is that at least a quarter of the people we have helped are very open about their guilt, sometimes they have told me this while on death row, and while admitting guilt of honestly heinous crimes.

To be totally blunt, and for my own reasons that I’m not going to bother to explain I honestly don’t care about the fact that many of the people I help are guilty of the crimes they are in prison for.. it will not stop me from helping anyone and I have never yet refused to help someone because of their crime.

The only thing that would immediately stop from helping someone is if the platform I created for them was used to further harass , stalk or victimize someone.

If creating the platform might be used against them by the courts or the prison administration.

If creating the platform is against the wishes of the person who is in prison or on trial or if the platform is being created against the advice of you or your loved ones defence lawyers.

Other than that, I would only refuse to create a site for practical reasons, such as limitations on my time ( in which case I would simply delay working on the project until I had the time . We do sometimes have a waiting list) and or frankly if you are bonkers and end up harassing me .

You do not have to invest your time in writing me explanations as to why you, or your loved one are not guilty or were unfairly convicted.

If you say you or your loved one were unfairly convicted I believe you.

If you say that you or your loved one is innocent I believe you.

If you or your loved one say you or they are guilty, I believe you and also do not particularly care.

Just so you know, we can all save a lot of time and energy in trying to convince me of you or your loved ones innocence and take that time to use making the best website possible for you or your loved one.

Mark

How Gangs Took Over Prisons Originally formed for self-protection, prison gangs have become the unlikely custodians of order behind bars—and of crime on the streets.

on a clear morning this past February, the inmates in the B Yard of Pelican Bay State Prison filed out of their cellblock a few at a time and let a cool, salty breeze blow across their bodies. Their home, the California prison system’s permanent address for its most hardened gangsters, is in Crescent City, on the edge of a redwood forest—about four miles from the Pacific Ocean in one direction and 20 miles from the Oregon border in the other. This is their yard time.

Most of the inmates belong to one of California’s six main prison gangs: Nuestra Familia, the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family, the Northern Structure, or the Nazi Lowriders (the last two are offshoots of Nuestra Familia and the Aryan Brotherhood, respectively). The inmates interact like volatile chemicals: if you open their cells in such a way as to put, say, a lone member of Nuestra Familia in a crowd of Mexican Mafia, the mix can explode violently. So the guards release them in a careful order.

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