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‘It’s Absolute Hell.’ Coronavirus Derails Parole Hearings Across U.S. As Health Risks To Prisoners Grow

In Alabama and elsewhere, canceled hearings and new procedures are complicating the parole process for people hoping to be freed.

For more than a year, Barbara has driven around with the clothes she bought for her daughter, Molly, to wear if she is released from an Alabama prison on parole. Molly, who is 50 and incarcerated in a men’s unit, came out as transgender three years ago and has since transitioned. So these clothes—gray track pants and a black T-shirt—will be what she wears when she debuts her new body to the free world for the first time. 

That shot at freedom was expected to come last Tuesday, but as the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the country, Molly’s hearing—along with hundreds of others—was canceled by the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. The cancellations are in effect through at least the end of May

The news was devastating for Molly, who is imprisoned on a parole violation stemming from a robbery charge (the charge that led to the parole violation was dismissed in August 2017). At first she was to appear before the board in October 2018. But her hearing didn’t happen and she was promised she would get her next chance in May 2019. That hearing was rescheduled to November 2019 and then for March 31. As the most recent date neared, she grew hopeful that she would soon be released. 

Over the last three years, she has turned her life around, a change she has credited to embracing her female identity. She has a job in the prison she loves, attends church regularly, bunks in a Christian dormitory, and stays out of trouble in a facility she says is heavily drug-ridden. 

After enduring years of showering with men who stare at her breasts and fighting with administrators for simple accommodations, the day she can grow her hair out, wear a bra, and put on makeup—things she is either not permitted to do or that she will not do to avoid attracting unwanted attention—finally seemed within reach. But after finding out that her hearing was delayed again, she started doubting that her day of freedom would ever come. 

“I was literally hopeless,” said Molly of the moment she learned of the delay. She agreed to talk to The Appeal on the condition that pseudonyms be used to protect her and her mother’s identity. “I was telling myself why bother doing any of this? Every time I fulfill my part they disappoint me.”

On Thursday, the bureau rescheduled Molly’s hearing for early May, but canceled it yesterday. A notice on the bureau’s website says once it resumes operations, administrators will prioritize rescheduling canceled hearings then will schedule the remaining people who have become eligible for parole while hearings were on hold. “There’s just no way to know at this point when things might get started again because of the uncertainty about the virus,” bureau spokesperson Terry Abbott told The Appeal in an email.

Unlike other states, whose parole boards either already use video or have switched to them in response to the pandemic, there are no plans to move the hearings to safer mediums such as video or telephone, Abbott said. (In an email following publication, he said under state law, the board is prohibited from holding hearings electronically.)

As of Thursday, 21 prisoners across the correctional system had been tested for COVID-19 and none had tested positive. Nine tests are still pending. Two staff members have tested positive. 

Attempts at social distancing within the prison Molly is incarcerated at have been weak, she said. Staff have instructed prisoners to keep their distance from one another but that is impossible since overcrowding means prisoners have no choice but to eat and sleep near each other, shower together, and use the same toilets. “This is absolutely pathetic,” Molly said. 

Last week, a coalition of Alabama law professors and former law enforcement officials called on Governor Kay Ivey to use her executive powers to push the bureau to restart hearings via video or telephone and order the board to prioritize the release of prisoners most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Releasing prisoners on parole is an essential step to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prisons, which are notoriously violent and under-resourced, the coalition wrote in a letter to Ivey. 

“Alabama’s prisons are poised to exacerbate the already disastrous coronavirus outbreak,” the letter read. “Alabama should recognize the parole system as one avenue through which to ameliorate the public-health threat posed by our overcrowded prisons.” 

Ivey and legislators have been tightening restrictions on the board since October 2018, in response to a paroled man allegedly killing three people that month. These changes included installing Charles Graddick, a tough-on-crime former attorney general, to steer the bureau and new rules that criminal justice reform advocates say make it nearly impossible to win early parole. These changes have had a significant effect on prisoners’ chances of winning parole. 

Prior to the pandemic, the board was experiencing a “period of remarkable paralysis,” wrote the coalition. From November 2018 to January 2019, 430 prisoners were granted parole; that figure fell to 37 prisoners from November 2019 to January 2020.

This is partly because of a sharp reduction in the number of parole applications the board reviewed. But even as it is ramping up the number of applications it considers in 2020, the board has held 666 hearings this year and paroled 116 prisoners, according to the letter. “The state of Alabama cannot tolerate continued inaction from the Board as the coronavirus outbreak continues to expand,” wrote the authors. 

Alabama’s approach to its parole hearings stands in stark contrast to other states that have taken measures to keep their boards in operation. Oklahoma announced that it will start conducting hearings by either video conference or teleconference. North Dakota’s board held a special meeting in March in response to coronavirus concerns. Of the 60 people who applied, the board granted parole to 56 people. Connecticut closed its parole office but is streaming video hearings on its website. 

Mississippi’s board, which typically uses a video platform, is continuing its hearings without interruption, according to Mississippi Today. Its chairperson told the news outlet, “We’re not going to start just paroling everybody just because there’s a virus.”

Similar to Alabama, however, South Carolina has canceled about 175 scheduled hearings for the next two months because of the pandemic, prompting backlash from the local American Civil Liberties Union and one legislator, who called it “the worst decision that could ever be made.” 

Heather Elliott, a law professor at the University of Alabama who helped write the letter to Ivey, told the Appeal that it’s vital that Alabama’s parole board make an effort to continue hearings. “I’m sure they have computers at the parole board. They can download Zoom,” she said. 

She added that the spread of the virus among prisoners living in overcrowded conditions will have dire consequences for people outside of prison walls. “If you create a situation where you are basically letting the virus spread like wildfire among the prison population, that’s inevitably going to get into the staff of the prison and they’re going to take it home to their families and they’re going to give it to people in their communities,” she said.

A spokesperson for Ivey did not answer a question about the governor’s stance on releasing prisoners and switching parole hearings to video or telephone but said that her “commitment to reforming the Alabama correctional system remains.” The spokesperson added that the coronavirus “reinforces the need” for the state to address problems within its prison system. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment. 

Molly said that freedom now would mean she could properly social distance and take care of her family. But she fears that her experiences in prison will leave her with post traumatic stress disorder.  “I want to bring joy to people but it’s just this constant disappointment. It feels like I’m not in the United States. How could this stuff possibly go on?” 

While Molly awaits her hearing, Barbara, who has lost her job because of coronavirus cuts, has started paying rent on an apartment she secured for her daughter. Soon, as the weather changes, she is planning to exchange the track pants for shorts. “It’s absolute hell,” Barbara said of Molly’s incarceration. “It’s overcrowded, it’s scary, she’s getting more and more comments on her body…I can’t help but feel she will die in there.