Joe Dan Channel was granted parole from a Texas prison in late 2019. But the 62-year-old man was still behind bars several months later when he fell ill with the coronavirus and died only a few weeks before his release date.
In Florida, Lawrence Carter, a disabled Vietnam veteran in his late 70s, also fell ill from Covid-19 while he was incarcerated and died. He had not been convicted of the drug possession charge that brought him to jail: Mr. Carter was contesting the charge against him and had been awaiting trial in Seminole County.
The coronavirus tore through the nation’s prisons, jails and immigration detention centers over the past year, killing more than 2,700 people who were incarcerated. Dozens of them, including Mr. Channel and Mr. Carter, died after being approved for release by a parole board or while being held in jail without a conviction. That finding comes from a New York Times review of state and federal court records and data, and interviews with prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and court administrators.
Mr. Channel, who had a history of drug arrests, was one of at least nine prison inmates around the country who was cleared for release by state parole boards but died within weeks of their scheduled discharges, the review showed. Mr. Carter was one of more than 50 men and women who died of Covid-19 in local jails while awaiting trial on the charges that brought them there.
The deaths raise troubling questions about the way the country’s justice system responded to a pandemic that infected incarcerated people at more than three times the national rate. Defense attorneys, judges and some prosecutors have been critical.
“We have, as Americans, a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable in our communities, and as prosecutors, we have responsibilities to protect against cruel and unusual punishments,” said Andrew H. Warren, the state attorney for Hillsborough County, Fla. “So being in jail or prison, especially for a nonviolent offense, should not be a death sentence.”
Some counties and states released incarcerated people during the pandemic as a precaution. New Jersey and California sent home thousands of prison inmates before the ends of their sentences to reduce overcrowding and try to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Hundreds of local jails released tens of thousands of inmates during the early days of the pandemic.
But a vast majority of states resisted calls to free inmates early or expedite parole.
The pandemic has been particularly devastating in the nation’s criminal justice system: Tens of thousands of trials and parole hearings were canceled; families said they were unable to afford even modest bail amounts amid record job losses; and facilities were ill-equipped to handle outbreaks of a virus that spread rapidly, especially in close quarters.
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In 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic, Mr. Channel was serving a three-year sentence at Larry Gist State Jail in Beaumont, Texas, for felony bail jumping and failing to appear for a court date.
Mr. Channel was a skilled hunter of deer and wild boar and a gregarious man who loved riddles, his family said, but he struggled with addiction, including to methamphetamine.
Arrested on a low-level drug possession charge that prosecutors later dropped, Mr. Channel had been granted parole in October 2019 by the state’s parole board. He was scheduled to be released once he completed a six-month drug treatment program in late June or early July 2020, according to Timothy McDonnell, chief of staff for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
But as the virus battered the state’s prisons, he was infected, and he died in a hospital on June 2. Mr. Channel had told relatives that he feared that getting infected might kill him because of his underlying health issues, including a heart condition.
“I try to just remember all the good times and try to push the fact that he died alone and away from everyone to the back of my mind,” said Brittany Channel, 32, Mr. Channel’s niece. “It’s all I can do, honestly.”
The drug rehabilitation course, which was all that kept Mr. Channel from being released sooner, is not required for all inmates imprisoned for drug offenses, Mr. McDonnell said, adding that such decisions are made on an individual basis by the parole board. Mr. McDonnell said the programs were available only inside Texas prisons, so Mr. Channel would not have been able to finish the course while at home.
“The Board of Pardons and Paroles values the treatment programs that are available within the institution and believe that they have been instrumental in helping to reduce the state’s recidivism rate,” Mr. McDonnell wrote in an email.
Brittany Channel said her uncle’s death was unnecessary.
“When he went to prison, it wasn’t for a violent crime,” she said. “No one was victimized in any kind of way. And it’s just so hard for me to accept the way that the prison system treated that situation. It’s mind-boggling to say the least.”
In Florida, drugs were also at the center of Mr. Carter’s legal problems.
In November 2019, police officers found Mr. Carter sleeping inside a vehicle in Sanford, Fla., that appeared to have been involved in a collision, according to a police report. Officers found small amounts of heroin and cocaine in a black purse and arrested him, according to the report.
Mr. Carter told family and friends that he was confident he would be acquitted and out of jail within a month or two because he believed that the police search had been improper.
For Mr. Carter, the stakes in the case were high. When he was arrested, he was on parole after having served seven years of a 15-year drug trafficking sentence. If he was found to have violated his parole by possessing drugs, he would be sent back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.
But Jaya Balani, his lawyer, said that if Mr. Carter could prove the police search had been illegal, she could get the drug charges dropped and a parole violation would no longer be an issue.
Mr. Carter’s decision to contest the charges — including requesting police body camera footage — meant that his trial date kept getting delayed. In the spring of 2020, it was postponed indefinitely by coronavirus prevention protocols.
“He was talking in his sleep about trying to get out,” said Titus Manning, Mr. Carter’s cellmate in the Seminole County jail’s medical unit. “He’d call the guards and ask them, ‘Why am I in here? I’m 76 years old. Why am I in here?’”
Years earlier, diabetes had led to the amputation of one of Mr. Carter’s legs and half of the other one. In jail, Mr. Manning said, Mr. Carter had waited several months for insulin medication, and once the insulin arrived, Mr. Carter had become too weakened to inject himself.
“You could see the man’s bones in his hands,” said Mr. Manning, who wrote a letter to Jessica J. Recksiedler, the circuit judge who was handling Mr. Carter’s case, urging her to consider granting Mr. Carter release pending trial. “It was like he was fading away.”
Mr. Manning said he never received a response to the letter. A spokeswoman for Judge Recksiedler said the judge did not respond because while the letter had been “well-intentioned,” it had been “improper” not to send it to “all parties” in the case.
The Seminole County Sheriff’s Office declined to respond to written questions about Mr. Carter, including the status of his insulin. The department said it could not disclose medical information about current or former inmates.
In a news release announcing Mr. Carter’s death, the sheriff’s office wrote that the jail’s medical staff had examined Mr. Carter for “congestion and cold symptoms” on Aug. 19. Three days later, he was tested for the coronavirus and found to be positive. On Aug. 24, he was taken to a hospital. The jail announced his death on Sept. 2.
Reporting was contributed by Izzy Colón, Brendon Derr, Ann Hinga Klein, Danya Issawi, Derek M. Norman, Chloe Reynolds, Rachel Sherman, Maura Turcotte and Timothy Williams. Research was contributed by Kitty Bennett and Sheelagh McNeill.