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Thomas “TJ” Hanna is no stranger to Bexar County Jail — the barren walls of a small cell, the sub-par food and the feeling of confinement for hours on end, often with nothing to do.
But recently, as the coronavirus outbreak in the jail worsened, Hanna grew increasingly panicked.
“Mom, I don’t want to die in here,” he said in one recent phone call to his mother, Pat Goracy, who lives in Connecticut, 2,000 miles away.
Hanna’s recent stint in jail started in January when, while on parole, he was arrested on one count of evading arrest and five counts of drug possession, both nonviolent felonies.
He was 20 days shy of completing nearly three years of parole for a drug conviction.
Now, Hanna, 43, is in limbo, caught in a complicated, lengthy process involving three agencies that determine whether he will have to remain in jail.
About 460 inmates in the downtown lockup are in the same position, waiting to learn the outcome of their parole cases. They make up about 15 percent of the jail population.
Even before the coronavirus, inmates on “parole hold” had to wait months, if not years. Now the stakes are higher as scores of deputies, staffers and inmates have become infected.
On Thursday, Bexar County detention deputy Timothy De La Fuente, a 27-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, died at his home after testing positive for COVID-19.
As officials try to stem the outbreak, in part by reducing the jail population, inmates, their families and criminal justice advocates have called for the release of more people held on parole violations.
“They could release a lot of tension in the jail by hearing our cases or letting us make parole,” Hanna said in a phone interview from the jail.
On ExpressNews.com: Detention deputy who tested positive for COVID-19 dies
Of the 460 inmates on parole hold, about 260 are charged with new crimes, including nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession.
The remaining 200 are locked up for breaking the rules of their parole — drinking alcohol, traveling without permission, or missing appointments with parole officers.
Inmates accused of such rule violations could be released on bond.
For parolees accused of new crimes, the process is less straightforward. They can’t be freed until one of three agencies makes a move: the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which issues warrants for alleged parole violations; the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which hands down judgments about violations; or the Bexar County district attorney’s office, which prosecutes criminal charges.
In interviews, officials with each agency passed responsibility on to the next, making the process seem almost mazelike.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice usually doesn’t lift so-called “parole holds” until after the parole board issues its decision.
The parole board, meanwhile, typically doesn’t render a judgment until after an inmate’s new charges are resolved by local prosecutors.
The Bexar County DA’s office said the parole board could decide without a resolution of the criminal charges, since parole violations are administrative issues, not criminal.
The inmates stay in jail, waiting on each agency to do its part.
“It’s normally a notoriously slow process,” said Laquita Garcia, a criminal justice advocate at the Texas Organizing Project, a statewide group that pushes for changes in the criminal justice system, among other issues. “I’ve heard dozens of stories over the years of people spending years in jail waiting for a parole violation to be handled.”
There are alternatives.
For example, the parole board could move forward with hearings on parole violations, allowing the inmate to bond out on the new charges.
Unlike a criminal trial, the board makes its judgments based on a preponderance of evidence — a lower burden of proof than required to convict a defendant.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice could lift its hold on the person’s warrant before the case is handled by the parole board.
On ExpressNews.com: At Bexar County jail, inmates complain of superficial cleanings, scarce soap and flimsy masks amid COVID outbreak
Raymond Estrada, a spokesman for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, defended the agency, saying board members are processing inmates in accordance with time frames established in Texas law.
He added that the board changed a number of practices in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
For example, it suspended in-person interviews in prison and began using videoconferencing for some hearings, including those involving parole violations. However, it has said the parole revocation process will remain the same.
“For those offenders that have also been charged with a new offense, the board is not required to render a final decision until the offense has been adjudicated in court,” Estrada said in an email.
Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said that after a parolee is arrested, parole officers review each case to determine whether the person should be released from jail. While the agency can lift the “parole hold” before the parole board issues its decision, it’s not a common practice, Desel said.
“We are not withdrawing warrants due solely to COVID-19 concerns,” Desel said. “We will always evaluate cases to ensure that maintaining a warrant is the best course of action.”
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales said prosecutors review all new cases filed, including those involving parolees, to determine which could be dismissed and which could be handled through other means, perhaps a plea deal.
He said other key players — including judges and defense lawyers — also play a big role in getting cases resolved quickly.
“We are well aware of the concerns of how long it can take for criminal charges to be resolved, especially right now, during the period of the pandemic,” he said.
For Goracy, the situation at the jail has left her conflicted.
She makes no excuses for her son’s actions. Over 30 years, starting when he was 14, Hanna has been arrested more than a dozen times, almost always for nonviolent drug offenses, court records show.
Hanna’s run-ins with the law and his chronic drug addiction have strained Goracy’s relationship with her son.
Goracy knows that what he did was wrong, and at times, she feels like jail is a good place for him. After he goes through the painful detox process, he’s back to his usual chipper self. Goracy will hear from him more often. He’s kinder.
But now, as the coronavirus outbreak swells — as of Saturday, 201 inmates, 54 deputies and 11 others who worked at the jail have contracted COVID-19 — Goracy doesn’t know what to do. Hanna is her only son. She doesn’t think he deserves to get sick or die because of drug addiction.
Making matters worse, Hanna has high blood pressure, which increases the risk of severe complications with COVID-19.
“I go back and forth between being very angry with him,” Goracy said. “But I still worry about him. And I get frustrated about the parole board process. There certainly needs to be some changes.”
Transfers on hold
Officials have said reducing the population in the jail — which can hold a maximum of 5,100 people — could help control the outbreak.
The jail population is transient, with hundreds of people being booked and released every day. The outbreak endangers not only deputies, staff and inmates, but all San Antonio residents.
Sheriff Javier Salazar, in coordination with Gonzales and local judges, started reducing the number of inmates in early March, primarily by releasing nonviolent misdemeanor offenders and sending felons to state prison.
At last count, the jail population is down by 850 inmates, to about 3,000.
In recent weeks, that effort has stalled, due in part to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s decision to no longer accept transfers of new inmates to state prisons. Salazar said more than 200 inmates have been convicted and are “paper ready” to be transferred.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has urged the state to take transfers again, and at one point questioned whether the county could take legal action against the state.
TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier, in a recent letter to Wolff, said the agency was setting up a process to accept healthy inmates “as soon as possible.”
One jail inmate awaiting transfer is Renee Rotge, 39.
In March, she said, she turned herself in at Bexar County Jail on a 2012 warrant that was issued by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
According to Rotge, she violated the terms of her parole by leaving a halfway house, a transitional facility for inmates nearing release. Previously, she had served time in a state prison for a felony drug charge.
Rotge said she also stopped making payments required as a condition of her release and owed more than $600.
This year, at the urging of her children, she decided to turn her life around. She turned herself in March 14. She was aware of the coronavirus pandemic, but she didn’t think it would reach the jail.
Rotge said the parole board heard her case rather quickly, perhaps because she was being held on a technical violation and didn’t have new charges pending. The board sentenced her to 45 days in a treatment center run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Now, she’s awaiting transfer.
“I’ve done wrong. I admit that,” she said. “But here I was trying to step up and do the right thing, and now my family is suffering because they are sitting at home worrying that I’m going to catch the coronavirus. I didn’t think I was going to be a waiting duck sitting in here.”
Waiting for a hearing
For others, the process isn’t so quick.
Trisha Behrens, a former Bexar County detention deputy, has called for the state to modify the parole hold procedures, especially in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
Her partner, John Garcia, has been held in Bexar County Jail on a parole hold since February after he was arrested for evading arrest and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, both nonviolent felonies.
Garcia, 29, also had a technical violation for leaving the halfway house where he was ordered to live after serving time on a robbery charge. At the time, he had a little more than three months left on parole.
Behrens, who stopped working at the jail in 2012, met Garcia in November through a mutual friend. Garcia recently had been released from prison and needed a place to stay. Behrens said he could stay with her — as long as he didn’t get into trouble.
At first, their relationship was platonic. There were moments when there was a spark of romance, but the two put their feelings aside. One day, Garcia abruptly left Behrens’ apartment and she stopped hearing from him. She was hurt.
In February, Garcia reached out. He explained that he had started using heroin again and didn’t want his drug use to affect her. He acknowledged that he had feelings for her and wanted to start a relationship and get clean.
Behrens, one to see the best in people, agreed to help. They decided they would move back in with each other and start a life together.
They may seem like an unlikely couple — a felon and a former law enforcement officer — but Behrens said Garcia is a good guy who suffers from a heroin addiction that started over 15 years ago.
When she was a detention deputy, she said she struggled to see inmates as merely that. They were people, too. They had moms, dads and other family members on the outside who cared about them.
Officials at the jail “would tell me I needed to call them inmate,” Behrens said. “I didn’t have the heart to treat them like a number.”
In recent weeks, Behrens has called a number of public officials to bring attention to Garcia’s case. She has urged the parole board to handle his revocation hearing now, not later, so Garcia can bond out on the two new charges.
During such hearings, the board determines if the parolee violated the terms of community supervision, and if so, what the punishment should be. At that point, the inmate is sent back to prison, placed in a treatment facility or released from jail — sometimes with stricter conditions.
Behrens said that granting Garcia’s release would benefit not only her partner, who has hepatitis C and is at greater risk of severe complications if he contracts COVID-19, but the public in general.
“If it breaks out really bad in the jail, then it becomes a major threat to our community,” Behrens said. “People get released from the jail every day. It’s the same thing with officers. How many people will those people infect before they realize they are sick?”
Critics of the parole system, which originally was designed as an alternative to incarceration, say it always has been riddled with problems, and some have found it is a significant contributor to mass incarceration.
According to the Justice Lab at Columbia University in New York, which advocates for changes in the criminal justice system, nearly as many people are sent to prison for parole and probation violations as for new offenses.
“I think it’s always been their job to funnel folks back into the system,” Krishnaveni Gundu, co-founder of the Texas Jail Project, a state criminal justice reform group, said recently. “They don’t set people up for success in their re-entry.”
A national advocacy group, Executives Transforming Probation and Parole, has called on probation and parole agencies to remodel their practices in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Too many people are placed under supervision who pose little public safety risk,” the group said online. “This would be concerning under any circumstances. But it is especially problematic with the current COVID-19 emergency.”
About 50 parole and probation supervisors across the country have signed the group’s petition, including a top executive in Harris County. No one from Bexar County has signed.
For some inmates, there is some hope of being freed.
Becky Kalson has been on edge about her son, 31-year-old Justus Kalson. He was arrested in July on two felony charges, possession of a controlled substance and felon in possession of a firearm. At the time, he was a few months short of successfully completing parole.
Kalson had waited for months to find out whether the parole board would hear his case. Then, the coronavirus outbreak struck. Inmates began complaining about a host of problems at the jail, including infrequent cleanings, watered-down disinfectant, and temperature checks that occurred less than twice daily.
They also said meals were inconsistent and meager, and that they only were provided with one small, motel-size bar of soap a week.
Sheriff Salazar made a handful of changes after the problems emerged. He said masks are handed out daily, and soap is provided twice a week. All 1,000 deputies and staffers and 3,000 inmates are in line to be tested for COVID-19, but that could take weeks.
Salazar acknowledged the need for better food service and started supplementing meals with items from the commissary. Some inmates are receiving free packages with instant noodles, chips, soda and cookies.
Kalson said the changes were welcomed, but some problems persist, including access to disinfectant. The outbreak is taking a toll on everyone in the jail, he said.
“They say they are afraid of catching the virus,” he said. “They stand in front of the TV for hours on end waiting for news updates.”
A few days ago, Kalson finally received some good news: The parole board plans to hear his case, allowing him to bond out on the new charges. He was released Wednesday.
Hanna, who was charged with evading arrest and drug possession, learned in March that prosecutors dismissed four of the five drug charges. A few days ago, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice lifted the hold on his warrant, allowing him to bond out on the two remaining charges.
He’s still in jail, trying to gather the money necessary to make bail. His bond is set at $45,000.
Emilie Eaton is a criminal justice reporter in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Emilie, become a subscriber. firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @emilieeaton