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Getting Lost In The Prison System


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, the show that set the record for simultaneous illegal downloads and how that might change TV as we know it. And later, those March Madness heartbreakers maybe aren't so heartbreaking when you calculate how much all the free media coverage is worth.

But first, every year, 10 million people funnel in and out of our nation's jails and prisons. And every year, some of them get lost. Recently, there have been two high-profile cases of such inmates: one who got out years too early and one who stayed years too long. Both cases had disastrous consequences. And as NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, there's no easy fix to this problem.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Just this past January, Evan Ebel walked out of a Colorado prison four years too early. Two months later, he allegedly rang the doorbell of Tom Clements, the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections. He shot him in the chest and killed him. Ebel was shot and killed by police two days later. Colorado officials say Ebel's early release was a clerical error.

Then there's the case of Stephen Slevin, a man who was pulled over for driving under the influence in New Mexico. Jail administrators left him in solitary confinement for almost two years and seem to have forgotten about him. He was never brought before a judge, never saw a lawyer. At one point, he pulled out his own tooth. The county there just agreed to pay him $15 million.

ART WALLENSTEIN: I'd be very surprised if there's a county jail anywhere in America that hasn't released a pretrial prisoner early or held one longer.

SULLIVAN: Art Wallenstein heads the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation in Maryland and has been running jails for more than 30 years. Wallenstein says it seems like a simple task: Release inmates on their release dates. But consider just his stats: He's got 2,000 inmates at any given time, and 10,000 inmates are coming in and out of his system every year. Getting the dates right can be tricky.

WALLENSTEIN: You could have simply a wrong number placed on a release document. You could have an X drawn through a case by mistake. You could have a detainer that just came in as somebody was being released. I've been doing this for a terribly long time, and it hasn't got any easier.

SULLIVAN: Wallenstein's got a team of case managers to review the status of every person in his jail. But not all facilities can afford that. There are few national statistics about how many inmates stay too long or get out early. Some may not know when they're supposed to get out, and few who get out early would likely speak up.

But advocates say the problem is just as prevalent in prisons as it is in jails. Michela Bowman is the senior program associate at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

MICHELA BOWMAN: For the most part, sentence calculations are being done by hand.

SULLIVAN: Bowman says the criminal justice system depends on court clerks to record judges' orders correctly, prison and jail administrators to properly read those instructions, facility staff to accurately add and subtract good-time credits.

Throw in complicated sentencing guidelines, and Bowman says it's easy for mistakes to slip by, especially with inmates who may not be advocating for themselves.

BOWMAN: Without question, they are folks who are not represented by a private attorney. These are poor people for the most part, and they are people who don't necessarily have somebody on the outside who's advocating for them.

SULLIVAN: Bowman and other experts say the inmates most vulnerable to overstays are the mentally ill. A government study found that's about half the inmates currently incarcerated.

MELISSA NEAL: They don't understand the system, they don't know what to ask for, their families don't know who to call.

SULLIVAN: Melissa Neal is a senior research associate at the Justice Policy Institute.

NEAL: We have caseworkers, mental health specialists who don't have time to do all of these reviews.

SULLIVAN: Neal says the mentally ill often spend long periods in jail without charges because state hospitals are often full.

NEAL: There was someone, when I worked in Tennessee, who had been in jail for two years and had not had a court hearing yet, just because they didn't have room at the state hospital to treat that person.

SULLIVAN: Is that legal?

NEAL: Technically no, but the judge was making that order.

SULLIVAN: Neal and other experts say if someone is locked up too long, the cost is borne by taxpayers. If someone is locked up too little, as in the case of corrections chief Tom Clements, the public is still left picking up the pieces. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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