July 31, 2020

The confusing path to getting out of prison early

Courtesy photo

Stanley Ingram

Unless he gets an early release, Stanley Ingram is set to leave state prison in about 100 days. His parole plan, he said, includes going to live with family in Tucumcari and trying to put his Associate’s degree in wind energy technology to use. Besides his two year degree, he also earned two occupational certificates in the same field and a certificate for completing drug treatment while in prison. He said after spending years in and out of prison and struggling with substance abuse, he’s ready to leave his old life, and even his own self, behind. 

“That old Stanley’s dead and gone,” Ingram said. 

There’s little doubt that Ingram has already received second, third and fourth chances before he began his latest stint in state prison. According to court records, Ingram violated probation numerous times after he was convicted of a handful of felonies, including burglary and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. 

Ingram’s record inside prison seems to show he’s made a turn, although there is enough in his prison disciplinary record to make his attempts at early release more difficult. 

He was able to appeal most of the infractions he faced inside. In one case, according to prison records, he was accused of making “hooch” or homemade alcohol in his cell; his cellmate later admitted it was his. Another time he was accused by a guard of charging a security gate. Ingram was cleared of that charge after a review of security tapes. What’s left on his prison record is a 2007 assault and battery charge stemming from a fight with another inmate and two minor violations from last November. But it’s the two most recent violations that hang over Ingrams’s head as he tries everything he can to get released early in an attempt to avoid contracting COVID-19. 

In March, Gov. Michelle Luan Grisham issued an executive order stating that certain inmates would be released 30 days prior to their scheduled release date as a way to lower prison populations and thus increasing chances of social distancing and slowing the spread of COVID-19.

But despite the state’s efforts to lessen prison crowding by increasing the number of inmates released, those seeking early release for good behavior sometimes have a long road ahead of them. Even before the pandemic, inmates who worked to build up what is often referred to as “good time” risked forfeiting that time if they bristled staff or corrections officers. Now, with the backdrop of COVID-19, some advocates say it is more important than ever to consider how good time is calculated and tracked. 

A complicated process

In 2007, long before he made a conscious decision to make a change in his life, Ingram received what was deemed as a major violation in a state detention center in Las Cruces when he got in a physical altercation with another inmate. Ingram told NM Political Report it was a misguided attempt at standing up for himself. 

“This guy kind of called me out of my name,” Ingram said. 

It wouldn’t be until more than 10 years later, while he was serving a separate stint and shortly after he was transferred to a state prison in Santa Fe, that Ingram was found guilty of two minor infractions, just a few days apart. 

The first infraction came after a corrections officer told Ingram to take off his head covering, often called a do-rag. According to both Ingram and the incident report, Ingram followed the order and removed the head covering. But he was still written up because, as the reporting officer wrote, it was the “4th time in a week” Ingram was told to remove the do-rag during an inmate headcount. Ingram’s punishment was a loss of canteen privileges for seven days. 

On appeal, Ingram argued that he was not told multiple times to remove his head wear, but even if he was, he never refused the order. 

“As the body of the report indicates he told me to take off the head gear and I did,” Ingram wrote. 

His appeal was denied. 

The next infraction, days later, was for urinating in a bag and throwing it in the trash after he was denied access to the bathroom until after a head count was completed. Ingram said after he asked to use the bathroom and was denied, he asked a guard for a plastic bag and was clear about his intentions. 

“I said, ‘Well, let me get a plastic bag to piss in,’” Ingram told NM Political Report. “And he gave it to me.” 

The “sanitary violation” cost Ingram 14 days of phone privileges. 

In his appeal, Ingram insisted that he had little choice. 

“This was done out of necessity,” he wrote in his appeal. “I did not want to urinate in a bag. At the time that I took said action I was not afforded any other facilities to urinate in. It was either urinate on myself, the floor or as the [corrections officer] said he could give me a bag.”

That appeal was also denied. 

Even though Ingram served a sort of punishment in the form of a loss of privileges, those two infractions effectively negated his education certificates, which otherwise would have shaved months off his years-long sentence. 

Related: Accounts from inmates on COVID-19 response from officials’

According to transcripts provided by Ingram, he completed his schooling in the spring of 2019, months before his two infractions. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that Ingram received his diploma. Ingram said he was told the delay occurred because of a leadership change at the college where he earned his degree. 

“The only problem there,” Ingram told NM Political Report. “There wasn’t a president or somebody there that could sign it.” 

So, in line with state law and the Department of Corrections’ rules and regulations, Ingram did not receive additional good time credit for his degree because of the infractions. 

‘A lot of confusion’

There are two different types of good time credit inmates can receive. Meritorious Good Time (MGT) is awarded incrementally to inmates who keep a clear record and are enrolled in certain programs. Lump Sum Awards (LSA) are awarded to certain inmates who have a clear record and complete an approved program to better themselves.

Amanda Stephenson, the managing attorney for the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender’s habeas unit, is tasked with evaluating and sometimes challenging inmates’ detention status. Stephenson said even with an earned educational degree, inmates may not be eligible for LSAs if they have major infractions within the past 12 months or minor infractions in the past six months.

“When it comes to restoring lost good time,” Stephenson said, “lump sum awards aren’t eligible for restoration, because they weren’t earned, because [the inmate wasn’t] eligible.”

In Ingram’s case, even though he completed his course work six months before his two minor infractions, he did not receive his actual signed certificates until five to six months after the infractions. 

When NM Political Report spoke to Ingram by phone on Wednesday, he said he received notice that if he could prove he completed his course work before November 2019, he may be considered for early release. 

Stephenson said filing a petition in court is one way inmates can challenge their incarceration status, but that it can take much longer than the time Ingram has left on his sentence. She said the process starts with a petition from the inmate. Then Stephenson’s office reviews the case and determines whether it’s valid or not. Then her office has 90 days to file an amended petition. After that amended petition is filed, the state has 120 days to respond. 

“So it’s not a quick process,” Stephenson said. “It will take approximately a minimum of a year to work through the system for habeas.”

Ingram was originally scheduled for release in February 2021, but earned a drug treatment certificate which changed his release date to November. If his educational certificates are recognized as being earned prior to his infractions, he could be released as early as August.

Albuquerque attorney Alexandra Freedman Smith, who is the lead attorney in the ongoing Duran Consent Decree, said she would like to see state officials looking at any way to “de-crowd” state prisons. Allowing inmates to earn good time credits, she said, accomplishes two major goals. 

“One is de-crowding the prisons, which during COVID, is hugely important,” she said. “Second, it also helps to decrease recidivism because when you have these opportunities for people to earn good time, these are programs that can help them to stay out of prison.”

Freedman Smith also said she would like to see good time calculations and record keeping digitized. 

“There isn’t a centralized computer system that tracks this,” she said. “So, when people move from one facility to the other, it’s all done on paper, and in these moves things can get lost and things can take a long time to catch up to people. And I think that all leads to a lot of confusion.”

Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a former inmate, said without earning good time, inmates can “lose their ability to get home to their families and start their lives after incarceration.”

Jones added that the general public often do not understand how easy it is to get hit with infractions in prison. 

“If you’re dealing with a corrections officer who’s having a bad day, and they don’t like the way you look at them, you could be subject to a write up for not following the order,” Jones said. 

Ingram’s running theory is his two minor infractions were ultimately the result of him speaking out about what he said was a racist remark from a corrections officer. According to Ingram, after he complained that an officer in his unit called him a “punk black motherfucker,” prison staff began retaliating against him and his girlfriend. In a letter to Director of Adult Prisons John Gay, which was obtained by NM Political Report, Leon Martinez, the warden for the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, wrote that any allegation of retaliation is unfounded. He said the Corrections Department conducted their own investigation and found that the officer in question did not use any racist language towards Ingram. 

“I personally hold staff accountable for their actions and condemn any unprofessional behavior,” Martinez wrote. “I personally spoke with [the officer] on Friday March 6, 2020 along with Deputy Warden David Gonzales and warned him in the use of inappropriate language or even the appearance of such language, he ensured me he has not and would never act in such a way.”

But Ingram said his relationship with prison staff changed after he contacted the New Mexico chapter of the NAACP, which ultimately led to the warden’s letter. 

“All these problems started after the fact that I pushed the issue,” Ingram said. 

Slow but steady

Ingram is just one of many inmates who don’t technically qualify for the governor’s executive order for early release. That order narrowly focuses on inmates who are not serving time for domestic abuse, assault on a police officer, or a firearms enhancement. Inmates who have been convicted of a felony DWI or who are registered sex offenders are also not eligible for early release under the order. The order also only applies to those who have a month left of their sentence and have an approved parole plan, which includes having a place to live with no convicted felons. 

Ingram meets all of that criteria except that his release date is more than a month away. He said there is “definitely high tension” in his unit because of the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in his unit. He said he’s “frustrated” with his situation and that every day he gets more anxious. He said a prison doctor prescribed him nitroglycerin for a heart condition, but that another doctor took him off the medication and told him there was no record of a doctor prescribing it. He is also considered pre-diabetic and is administered a tube of glucose as doctor’s deem it necessary. His health conditions are what led him to file a petition with a Tucumcari judge, asking for an early medical release. That case is still pending. 

According to records obtained by NM Political Report, as of last week, the penitentiary in Santa Fe has the lowest number of positive cases out of all state detention centers. Out of 167 inmates tested at the Santa Fe penitentiary, three inmates tested positive and 16 had pending results. Those records also showed that 120 staff members in the Santa Fe facility were tested with no positive results and 83 pending results. 

As is often the case in prison, news spreads through inmate gossip and overheard conversations between guards. Ingram said he has heard from others that a family member of one of the guards who works in a gang unit tested positive. Ingram said the guard has also had contact with his low security unit. So now, Ingram said, everyone in his unit was tested this week, but had not received the results as of press time. 

Eric Harrison, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, did not respond to a request to confirm or dispute Ingram’s claim.

During a press conference last week, Lujan Grisham confirmed with a reporter that the state was on track to reduce prison populations to 75 percent capacity by the end of July. 

On Wednesday, in response to NM Political Report inquiring how the state planned to release possibly hundreds of inmates in a matter of days, Harrison pointed to hundreds of inmates who were set to be released, without extra state intervention. 

He said releases in June and July increased when compared to 2019. But many of those seem to be unrelated to the 103 people released under the governor’s order, as of Wednesday. 

Harrison said thanks to efforts from the Probation and Parole Division to reduce intakes for technical violations and the hundreds of releases, the state is about 2 percent away from the goal of reducing prison populations to 75 percent of capacity. 

“With all of these endeavors, public safety remains vital and our agency is ensuring that all individuals released into the communities have viable parole plans in place which include safe housing and access to the necessary community resources,” Harrison said. 

New Mexico’s Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur said on Wednesday that his office continues to work on a case-by-case basis to get medically at-risk inmates out of jail, which he said has “exhausted” attorneys, both physically and emotionally. He said he appreciates that the governor’s order has resulted in slightly more than 100 releases, but that more can still be done. Baur’s office, along with the ACLU-NM, pushed for a more dynamic approach to inmate releases that would have included early parole, house arrest and broader medical releases. 

“I just think systemically we haven’t looked at it enough and one at a time just isn’t getting it done,” Baur said. 

So far the roughly 100 inmates that have been released works out to be about 1 release a day, on average. According to records obtained by the Department of Corrections, as of the end of last week, the department identified an additional 11 inmates that qualified, but had not been released under the governor’s order.