KXAN Austin

Thousands of federal prisoners released due to COVID-19 concerns could go back

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that 223 inmates were released and are now back in prison nationwide.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Truck driver Kendrick Fulton wipes the sweat off his brow as he offloads another pallet of soda on a sweltering Austin afternoon. It’s hard work, but it beats the alternative.

“Man, listen, compared to what I’ve been through, this is a walk in the park,” he said. “The hardest day out here is nothing compared to being behind that fence or being behind that wall and hearing the cell door slam.”

Fulton, 49, is among more than 7,000 low-level federal prisoners, released temporarily due to the pandemic, who could soon be heading back behind bars.

“I always start out with, ‘You’re not supposed to be seeing me,'” Fulton said. “I’m not supposed to be here.”

He’s supposed to be at the Federal Correctional Institute in Beaumont serving the remainder of his sentence.

In 2003, a jury convicted him of conspiracy to possess and distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine and more than 50 kilograms of powder cocaine. His drug charge was nonviolent, but he was sentenced to 400 months — a little over 33 years — in federal prison. His appeals were denied.

“At the time, I was in my 20s. I was young, making bad choices,” he said, surprised at the time that the sentence was longer than he had been alive at that point.

“I sat in prison, many days, wishing I was double-jointed,” he added. “So I could kick myself for being in prison.”

‘It’s surreal’

The Federal Bureau of Prisons denied KXAN’s request to interview Fulton. Despite that, he wanted to share his story anyway. Fulton invited KXAN to meet him at a public park in Round Rock, close to where he is living with his sister.

His ankle monitor, strapped on tightly, is a constant reminder that even though he is out in public, he isn’t free.

“How does it feel to be out?” asked KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant. “To not be in prison?”

“It feels great,” Fulton said. “Just breathe air, just see the trees, just see the scenery. You know, you’re not looking at a chain-link fence. You’re not looking at walls. So, it’s surreal.”

Last year, the Justice Department began allowing nonviolent prisoners at low risk of offending to be released on home confinement. The decision was meant to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in confinement. In January of this year, a DOJ legal memo determined prisoners must return once the pandemic ends.

“I’m hoping it don’t happen. I’m praying it don’t happen,” Fulton said. “In my heart of hearts, I don’t think it’s going to happen. But nobody wants that hanging over their head.”

SEE THE OFFENSES COMMITTED BY TEXAS PRISONERS RELEASED UNDER THE CARES ACT BELOW

In Texas, 467 federal prisoners are currently on home confinement under the CARES Act due to COVID-19 concerns. Across the country, 223 inmates were released and are now back behind bars due to unspecified “violations or new crimes,” the Federal Bureau of Prisons said.

KXAN has filed a public records request for all re-offenses committed by federal prisoners released on home confinement.

Nationwide, 7,499 federal prisoners are currently on release.

Kendrick Fulton delivers sodas while on community confinement (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

‘Where’s the justice?’

Violent criminals, sex offenders, terrorists and those who pose a safety risk to the public are ineligible for temporary release. Prison officials say they have “discretion to keep inmates on home confinement after the pandemic if they’re close to the end of their sentences.”

Fulton has served 18 years and still has at least a decade to go. He insists he is a changed man.

“There’s people that commit murder that don’t do 18 years,” he said. “If I got sentenced today, my sentence would be less…. Look at the fairness. Where’s the justice in that?”

Fulton was 30 when he was convicted and sentenced. He will be eligible for release in 2032, when he will be 58.

In 1986, Congress passed a law enacting mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking. The guidelines were reduced in 2010 under the Fair Sentencing Act.

Fulton was released to community confinement last September. In that time, he has reconnected with family and reintegrated into society. He has a new Apple Watch and is learning to navigate new technology and new roads. After his release, he got his Commercial Drivers License. He now hauls soda for Coca-Cola full time.

“I’m just trying to make the best of every day. I’m working hard. I’m doing what I can,” he said. “People ask me how I’m doing. I say, ‘Better than I deserve.'”

KXAN watched Fulton make a delivery at a fast-food restaurant in Austin. It was one of several stops that day. At this location, Tom Willi asked why he was being interviewed.

He then asked if Fulton wanted a job at his roofing company.

“I could tell that he was genuine,” Willi said. “He got out of prison for this release. He didn’t go back to that life of crime. He immediately jumped in and got a job. That’s what we want people to do when they get out of prison… What do we as society get by sending him back to prison? It’s only going to cost us money and serves no greater purpose.”

Fulton blogs about his experiences and wears a hat that says “Life in the Feds.” He hopes to spark conversations and discourage others from going down the path he did.

He finds strength through his faith but worries without presidential intervention, his time on the outside is running out.

KXAN reached out to the White House for comment but did not hear back.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it does not release people incarcerated by the state for COVID-19 reasons. Most parolees have to complete a treatment program, and victims should have a voice in the process, state prison officials said.

One victims’ rights group in Texas says it would only be concerned if people with violent backgrounds were let out.

Federal prisoners that were released under the CARES Act in Texas have committed nonviolent offenses, mostly for drugs, records show.

“I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic,” Fulton said. “I would hope the president would see our stories, hear our stories and grant clemency, so we can really get on with our lives.”