Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway.
Ronnie Lauderdale: We started with 7, got up to 10. Then next time you look around, it's 18. When it got up to 40, it got up to 50, and after that, you have 60 guys in one wing, had Corona.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to the voice of Ronnie Lauderdale, a 63-year-old married father, and grandfather. Incarcerated for nonviolent crime in a federal facility near Lexington, Kentucky, Mr. Lauderdale faced the COVID pandemic behind prison walls. Without access to personal protective equipment and unable to maintain physical distance from others, Mr. Lauderdale who is diabetic soon contracted the virus.
Ronnie Lauderdale: I got to coughing. I was coughing real bad where I couldn't like something was in my throat. Then the fever started. Once the fever started, I began to have cold chills at night and break out in a cold sweat. The taste buds completely went away so I stopped eating.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Late last year, Mr. Lauderdale told his story as part of the project If Prison walls Could Talk from the Vera Institute for Justice.
Ronnie Lauderdale: It was close to two months before my wife realized I had Corona. They turned the phones off so no one could talk to their family.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ronnie Lauderdale survived Coronavirus, and he credits fellow inmates who banded together to care for one another when it felt as though they'd been abandoned to perish. Now after his ordeal, Mr. Lauderdale filed an appeal for compassionate release, which was finally granted by a judge but the getting out part, that's the part of his story that is very rare. Recent reporting from the Marshall Project and The Guardian revealed just how rare.
According to their reporting, 31,000 people imprisoned in federal facilities sought compassionate release as the deadly virus engulfed the ill-equipped federal prison system. The Bureau of Prisons approved only 36, 36 while 49,000 federal prisoners fell ill from the virus and 256 perished. With me now is Keri Blakinger a staff writer at the Marshall Project. Keri, thank you for joining us.
Keri Blakinger: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, before we jump into the numbers you've been reporting, can you talk to us a little bit about what are the different ways that people were able to be released from Bureau of Prison facilities during the pandemic?
Keri Blakinger: Well, there's two main ways. One is home confinement, and the other is compassionate release. Home confinement, technically, the person is still an inmate, and they've just been sent to finish their sentence at home. That's the decision that's entirely up to the Bureau of Prisons. Now, as the pandemic seems to be coming to a close, those people might have to come back to prison. The more prominent way to get out is compassionate release, which is when you ask the prison system to recommend you to get out.
As I reported, most of the time, they deny that, and then you have the option to appeal to a judge, and the judges are a little more apt to agree and let someone out. In those situations, if you get out on compassionate release like you are out, your sentence is over, you're no longer an inmate, and they're not going to send you back when the pandemic is over.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You might still be under some kind of state-based supervision like parole, but you've finished your sentence.
Keri Blakinger: You finish your sentence and there's no parole in the federal system. This is why federal prisoners end up doing a lot higher percentage of their sentence than is often the case in state systems because there's no parole. There are situations where you can end up in a halfway house, but that's typically the people on home confinement. Usually, when you're getting on compassionate release, unless you're agreeing to do some sort of monitoring as part of your terms of compassionate release, you would just be out typically, it's called a reduction in sentence because they just end your sentence.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think part of what I found most stunning, just relative to the numbers that you all reported is that the numbers for compassionate release actually went down during the pandemic. Prior to COVID, it was in the mid-50s and it goes down to the mid-30s. We're still talking about very small numbers relative to the numbers who are applying for it but that gap between the number applying and the number who actually are granted it at least by the Bureau of Prisons, that gap opens during a pandemic.
Keri Blakinger: Yes, I know. It was so shocking. Even to me as someone who reports on this and is thinking about these issues and talking to people day in and day out, even I was surprised by that. Usually, when I would call people to interview them and tell them about this data, they would say, "Oh, well," they'd assume I meant as a percentage, they would be like, "Oh, well, there's more people that applied during the pandemic, of course, it's a lower percent." I'm like, "No, it's raw numbers, the raw number of people that BoP greenlit for release was less after the pandemic," which is shocking.
Like I said, there were far more applications. In 2019, there were about 1,700 people who asked for compassionate release. After the pandemic, there's been around 31,000. Yet, fewer of those were approved.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, why? Again, I know this a bit from having read it but why is the Bureau of Prisons saying that people can't be released, even though you have somewhat more, a little bit of an uptick in it with judges being willing to release?
Keri Blakinger: We don't get a lot of insight there are some generic reasons that are included in some of the data that's being released. I think it comes down to that jailers want to jail, they're not brought up in a culture to be releasing people. I think that's at the heart of it. To some degree, this is just speculation, because we only get form answers. We don't get a lot of granular detail until things move into federal court. Then sometimes you get more nuanced discussions from the DOJ as to why they think someone should or shouldn't be released.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, I think for me, that was part of it was stunning was we are in the midst of a pandemic, you saw, especially in prisons, these rates increasing dramatically with COVID exposure, and then the Bureau of Prisons didn't have to give a reason.
Keri Blakinger: Right. I will say one of the more appalling reasons when things get into federal court is that oftentimes the DOJ would oppose release saying that it was safer to leave someone in prison.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, yes. Keri, tell me another story. Talk to me about Sean McQuiddy and how he exemplifies the problem in this system.
Keri Blakinger: Yes, this was a really heartbreaking story to tell. The McQuiddy brothers because they were both sent to prison, Darrell and Sean, they grew up in the projects of Nashville. They ended up turning to be one reliable source of income that the people around them were doing, which was selling drugs. They turned out to be quite good at it, ended up running a very successful crack house, and then got arrested in 1997. Darrell, who was the brother that was in charge of it got 25 years but Sean, who worked below him in their crack house, he got a mandatory life sentence because of two times that he had let a 17-year-old work a few hours in the crack house.
Throughout their time in prison, the brothers kept in touch by email, they had these plans for what they were going to do if they could get out someday. Darrell was going to get out and start a dump truck company and hire Sean to drive for him. Then sentencing reform came along and Darrell qualified for a shorter sentence because his pre-sentencing report only listed powder cocaine, but Sean's also listed crack. Even though they were both doing these things together, just this fluke of the paperwork, Sean didn't qualify for a sentence reduction and Darrell did.
Darrell got out in 2015 and they still talked every day, and they kept in touch. Sean was still trying to get a sentence reduction as well and he apparently had great faith that he would not die in prison and that he would someday come home. He applied for compassionate release in August and the warden did not respond. Then they went to court and the judge had not made a decision by the time that he started coughing in December, and called home and told his brother, "I don't think I'm going to make it I have a lot of underlying conditions."
He was like, "I love you but I don't think I'm going to make it." Then he ended up on a ventilator in hospital and his brother went to visit him. It was the second time they'd seen each other in whatever, 25 years since the arrest. He was chained to a hospital bed and dying. He ended up becoming one of the 200-some federal prisoners who died of COVID.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Keri, tell us, is there something that can be done in the system to create a more fair process, one that preserves more lives?
Keri Blakinger: Yes, sure, I think that most immediately the thing that could actually be changed better is home confinement. Compassionate release, there's a lot that could be done with that but home confinement is the thing that's most immediately pressing because there's a few 1,000 prisoners that under the current DOJ interpretation of the CARES Act would have to come back to prison when the pandemic is over. If Biden's administration reinterprets that, then those people might not have to come back to prison. That's something that's been hanging over the heads of a few 1,000 prisoners and the legal community for the past few months.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Keri Blakingeris a staff writer at the Marshall Project. Keri, thank you so much for joining us.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.