White House considers clemency for some prisoners released due to COVID-19

Investigations

ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — Kendrick Fulton is out in public, working a full-time job, but all he has to do is look down at his ankle monitor to be reminded that he isn’t free.

Fulton served 17 years in federal prison in Texas for selling cocaine. When the pandemic is over, he will have to go back to serve at least another decade — unless the White House steps in.

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.”

When COVID-19 swept through federal prisons last year, hundreds of nonviolent Texas inmates were released on home confinement as part of the CARES Act to help slow the spread of the virus. Thousands of prisoners across the country have now spent the last year reintegrating back into society only to be told they’ll soon have to go back. Prisoners released due to COVID-19 concerns are vetted committed nonviolent crimes.

Now, some may get to stay out, according to a new memo released this month by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The White House is considering clemency for nonviolent drug offenders. Previously, the Department of Justice determined inmates must return once the pandemic ends.

“Not only did we want this problem fixed, we wanted it fixed immediately,” said the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums Kevin Ring.

READ THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE MEMO

The nonprofit criminal justice reform group met with the White House and is lobbying for clemency for Fulton and thousands of others.

“These family members, they wake up every day not knowing if their loved one’s going back to prison in a few months. So, the waiting itself has been torture.”

Nearly 500 low-level federal prisoners in Texas and more than 7500 nationwide were released temporarily due to COVID-19. A tiny fraction of those released across the country reoffended.

KXAN has requested a list of all new crimes committed and where the new offenses occurred. KXAN looked at the original crimes committed by Texas inmates who were released under the CARES Act and found a bank robber, human smugglers and white collar crimes. The majority, however, were for drug offenses.

NON-VIOLENT CRIMES COMMITTED BY PRISONERS RELEASED UNDER CARES ACT

The Federal Bureau of Prisons says it doesn’t keep track of the crimes committed by inmates released last year to help slow the spread of COVID-19. A small fraction reoffended once released. KXAN put in a public records request to find out what those crimes were and where they were committed.

Prison officials say there are no “agency records” that exist and it “does not maintain or track records” in .

“Since BOP does not maintain or track records in the manner specified in your request, we will take no further action at this time,” officials wrote in response to KXAN’s request.

“What would you say to people who say these people committed a crime and that they should remain behind bars?,” asked KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant. “That they shouldn’t be released at all [before their sentence ends]?

“We shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, too bad, you did the crime you have to do the time,'” said Ring. “They all did the time. And they just don’t need to do any more time. And they’ve proven that.”

Notices to seek clemency for nonviolent drug offenders released on home confinement due to COVID-19 are already going out, according to Ring.

Fulton is now living with family in Round Rock. He is still waiting for his chance at clemency but, as of now, won’t get it. The White House is currently only considering inmates with four years or less on their sentence, according to Ring.

“I would hope the president would see our stories, hear our stories, and just grant clemency,” said Fulton. “So we can really get on with our lives.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing for “broader clemency” using the hashtag #KeepThemHome on social media.

“We thank President Biden for beginning to consider the use of clemency to help people on CARES Act home confinement, but he must go further than his current plans and not needlessly exclude people like Kendrick Fulton from being granted clemency,” said ACLU deputy national political director Udi Ofer, who shared KXAN’s investigation into Fulton on Twitter.

“On the campaign trail, President Biden committed to fighting mass incarceration and to reducing the federal prison population once elected, yet the federal prison population today is larger than it was a year ago,” said Ofer. “It’s time for the president to fully meet his commitments and do so through the power of clemency. Forcing people who are already home with their families to go back to prison would be cruel and would make no one safer.”

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

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