A federal inmate who was incarcerated on a nonviolent drug charge and was attempting to gain his freedom under a law designed to help people like him re-enter society has died of coronavirus complications after a judge refused his request to be released.
Patrick Jones, 49, contracted coronavirus while serving his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution at Oakdale, Louisiana, NBC News reports. But in October, months prior to being diagnosed, he had written U.S. District Judge Alan Albright, appealing to him that he had not seen his then-16-year-old son since he was three years old.
"I feel that my conviction and sentence was also a punishment that my child has had to endure also and there are no words for how remorseful I am," Jones wrote Oct. 15. "Years of 'I am sorry' don't seem to justify the absence of a father or the chance of having purpose in life by raising my child."
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In 2007, Jones was arrested when police found 19 grams of crack and 21 grams of powder cocaine inside his apartment in Temple, Texas. His wife, who lived with him testified against him and avoided a prison term. However, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison partly because of other crimes he’d been arrested for including burglaries when he was younger.
Hope rose when the First Step Act was signed into law by President Trump in 2018 to reform federal prisons, address recidivism among the formerly convicted and give early release to some imprisoned under nonviolent offenses. Jones penned his note to Albright in an attempt to convince him that the law could help him and his son.
"My child having his own experience of raising his own child would validate my life experience and give meaning to my existence in this world, because 83582-180 has no meaning," he wrote.
Albright denied Jones' request on Feb. 20, calling him a “career offender” who had “a history” of committing new offenses while on parole. He died March 28, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the first federal inmate to succumb to COVID-19. He had “long term” pre-existing conditions that contributed to the onset of the disease, the agency said.
Since then, the BOP reports 138 inmates and 59 staff have tested positive for coronavirus.
"He spent the last 12 years contesting a sentence that ultimately killed him," Alison Looman, lawyer who had represented Jones in an earlier attempt to gain clemency. "Ironically, it seems it is his death that might finally bring his case some attention."
Advocates of prison reform have been pushing legislators and officials to release prisoners in municipal jails, state prisons and federal institutions early in order to mitigate the spread of coronavirus among the incarcerated.
Some are heeding the warning. Jail and prison systems in New York, Ohio, Texas and California have been removing prisoners who are low level offenders, elderly, or in poor health, either freeing them early or placing them on house arrest. Rapper Tekashii 6ix9, who was sentenced to 24 months in prison, appealed for release on the basis of his asthma condition making him more susceptible. He was placed on house arrest to serve the final four months of his sentence.
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But for Jones, his attempt at getting the same release did not convince the judge he had written to. Instead, he began a serious cough, which only worsened as concerns in March about how coronavirus was affecting prisons was only increasing.
Without release from Albright, Jones was arguably condemned to die as the virus continued to spread.
“His case is exactly the type of case we’ll need to grapple with,” Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told The Daily Beast. He said that the judge left Jones few options because he was characterized as someone who had made mistakes as a teenager would always keep making them. “He was killed before the coronavirus killed him, because that sentence was absurd.”
Photo Credit: Hans Neleman