For four months after his release date, prison inmate Kyle Burnett worked along highways and in forests for a dollar or less per hour, hoping to scrape together $400 to pay for his freedom.
The money would go toward his first month’s rent at one of Albuquerque’s transitional living facilities, where Burnett would get help finding potential employers, transitioning back to society and getting other assistance that would help him start over.
Instead, Burnett, 36, returned to his cell each day with a few more dollars earned toward his release, all the while costing New Mexico taxpayers more than $100 a day and denying him opportunities outside prison walls.
“They kept me in there until I had enough money to get out,” Burnett said recently. “It’s wrong.”
Burnett was finally released from the state prison in Los Lunas in October 2010, and he moved into the New Vision House transitional living facility in Albuquerque. That’s where he got help he said wasn’t available in prison. He now works at a construction company.
Burnett is one of many parolees whose release was contingent on their going into a transitional living facility — often because they have no other place to go. But Corrections policy required them to pay one month’s rent upfront.
That has now changed.
After a Journal inquiry in Burnett’s case, Corrections’ director of probation and parole Jose Cordova sent the Journal an email saying the department was changing its procedure, “that they no longer have to come up with the first month’s rent,” as long as funds are available, and “that there are no other issues prohibiting the offender from being released into the community.”
Officials stressed that a variety of factors could delay an inmate’s release, and no parole plan is denied outright solely because of an inmate’s lack of funds. The delays come when Corrections and the parole board determine whether and where an inmate can be safely placed in these facilities, and whether housing has been paid for.
Corrections also said it has helped some indigent inmates find the money to get out of prison. Since July 1, Corrections spent more than $28,000 to help cover the rent costs for about 65 inmates, $438 per inmate on average.
But Burnett and directors of several halfway houses say lack of funds has been a common reason to prevent inmates from being released on time. Burnett said he knew of at least a dozen fellow inmates whose lack of money was the primary reason for their release being delayed.
One defense attorney, Matthew Coyte, said he regularly gets letters from inmates in prison who are frustrated about being kept behind bars because they can’t find the money.
Melissa Savoie, manager of the New Vision House, said many inmates remain in prison, where they receive credit toward their parole plan, biding their time due to lack of funds before they begin their stay at her facility.
“It’s really kind of a gray area, where the funding comes from, if it’s there,” she said recently. “I’ve seen a fair amount of them stay on in-house parole for a couple weeks to several months because of money issues.”
Savoie said houses like hers are crucial in preventing recent parolees from re-offending. The house offers food, clothing and other assistance, as well as help finding a job. Inmates are given support and are in an environment that discourages returning to a life of crime, she said.
“They need to re-learn how to have freedom,” Savoie said. “They are getting integrated back into society.”
In prison, she said, case workers are overwhelmed with the number of inmates and don’t have the same resources to help provide work and home stability for parolees.
The biggest problem, Corrections officials said, is that inmates being released have few inexpensive options for housing that might prevent them from falling back into their old lifestyle. That’s especially true for violent offenders who could pose a risk to the community in which they’re placed, they said.
Corrections officials say part of the problem is an inadequate number of beds for the influx of parolees needing assistance.
In fact, Corrections officials have begun drafting a proposal for the state Legislature that pursues funding for state-run halfway houses.
Currently, all halfway houses are privately run. Corrections says state-run houses would not charge rent and could provide additional beds for all parolees, but especially those whose criminal history would make private homes wary.
“Although it will take time, we are committed to investigating all options to reduce our costs while maintaining a halfway house that provides parolees with better treatment services,” said David Huerta, Corrections’ director of the Office of Recidivism Reduction, in an email.
He prefers that option to asking private companies to add more bed space.
“…Especially when we possess the professional creativity and resources to prioritize so that, as the state’s lead correctional agency, we not only talk the talk but walk the talk,” Huerta said.