STERLING, Colo. (AP) — Kelly Brasier gripped the handles of the empty wheelchair in the Colorado prison parking lot as two corrections employees unloaded a frail man in a blue prison uniform with wispy white hair, then wheeled him toward her.
Brasier quickly hugged her uncle in the wheelchair, Anthony Martinez, before bundling him into the truck away from the blasting winter wind that shook the light poles.
It was the first time they’d ever met. But Brasier has thought about Martinez every day for the past six years as she advocated for his release and faced denials, bureaucracy and silence.
“It’s a big pass-the-buck system,” she said. “Nobody wanted to take responsibility.”
At 84 years old, Martinez’s health was deteriorating quickly. He was nearly deaf, losing his vision, using a wheelchair, suffering renal failure and beginning to show signs of dementia. Colorado’s prison system has processes meant to allow people like Martinez be released into family care, but they had failed Martinez and Brasier.
It wasn’t until Gov. Jared Polis granted a clemency request that had been sitting in the governor’s office since his predecessor’s term that Martinez was able to go home after more than 30 years in prison. When he granted the request, Polis said it highlighted the need to reform the parole process for sick and older inmates like Martinez as well as habitual offender sentencing.
“At the age of 84 and having served over 31 years in prison, inmates like Mr. Martinez (who is elderly and disabled) should be allowed an avenue for a more responsive consideration for release to parole through special needs parole if they are deemed to represent a very low risk, versus seeking relief through clemency,” Conor Cahill, the governor’s spokesman, said in a statement.
That reform could come this year in the legislature, in part because of Martinez’s case.
Colorado’s special needs parole allows people who do not pose a threat to society and who need medical treatment for serious, chronic health conditions or mental illnesses to be released from prison before their parole date. The Department of Corrections can refer an inmate to the special needs parole process or an inmate can apply to start the process. The Department of Corrections decides which applications to send to the parole board, which has final say on who is released.
Although Brasier thought Martinez fit those parameters perfectly, her attempts to have her uncle released on special needs parole were denied twice. No reason was given for the denials, she said.
Martinez was sentenced in 1989 to life with the possibility of parole on a second-degree burglary charge and a slew of sentence-enhancers based on his prior criminal history, which increased the penalty. His criminal record shows a series of arrests in the late 1970s and early 1980s for theft, forgery, drug possession, burglaries and minor assaults.
But at 84 years old, he was hardly a threat to public safety, Brasier said. He needed better attention and health care, which was being paid for by tax dollars while he was in prison.
“I had promised my dad before he died that if my uncle ever got out I would care for him,” she said. “All I wanted was this man home before his funeral.”
Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, is working on a bill with Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that would address some of the problems with the special needs parole system, which she calls “fundamentally broken.”
One of the problems, Donner said, is that the Department of Corrections is largely responsible for identifying which people in prisons might be eligible for the program and compiling the information necessary to send a request to the parole board. The process often becomes bogged down and slow, she said.
Another problem is that there are not many deadlines the Department of Corrections must meet throughout the process, said Denise Maes of the ACLU of Colorado, which advocated for Martinez’s release.
Data compiled by the state legislature’s research staff for a 2018 bill about special needs parole shows that few people who applied for the parole had their requests granted. In 2017 and 2016, the Department of Corrections received 72 applications for special needs parole. The department referred nine of those applications to the parole board, which granted six. Two people died while their applications were pending, according to the data.
COVID-19 has only highlighted the depth of the problem with the system, Donner said.
“We’re in a pandemic and we’ve had very little use of the special needs parole statute — and not because there aren’t people eligible,” she said.
Polis briefly expanded the parameters for special needs parole in March in an effort to reduce the prison population and minimize the risks of outbreaks causing lasting harm and deaths. Before the governor’s executive order expired May 22, the Department of Corrections was to recommend low-risk people who were at high risk of death due to COVID-19 for special needs parole.
During the two months the executive order was in place, 150 people were released — far fewer than advocates believe should have been eligible. It’s unclear how many inmates have been approved for special needs parole for all of 2020 as the Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for that figure by deadline for this story.
About 7% of Colorado’s prison population — a total of 1,237 people — is over the age of 60 and therefore at higher risk from COVID-19, according to Department of Corrections data. Thirty percent of the approximately 16,000 people in the prisons have medical needs.
More than 8,000 people in Colorado’s prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and 25 people have died of the virus.
Brasier is thankful Polis granted the release of her uncle, but worries about others still locked up who have medical conditions. Polis commuted the sentences of four people in December, including Martinez, and Brasier urged him to use his power to release more people.
On his first day out of prison in three decades, Martinez participated in a video chat with family members he’d never talked to before, ate enchiladas and dreamed of a bubble bath. He understood that he was out of prison, but seemed overwhelmed. He alternated between beaming with joy and bursting into tears when describing what Brasier did for him.
“This lady here, I have never seen her in my life, I have nothing but respect for her,” he said, sitting in a Sterling hotel lobby, waiting to go home.