David, 28, was counting the days until January 6, 2012, when his prison sentence would end and he would be released on parole. He had earned his GED diploma inside and lined up some job options in construction and landscaping around Albuquerque. But the date came and went, and still the state kept him locked up.
The problem was housing. There was only one halfway house in the state that would take an inmate like David — a convicted sex offender — and it had a long waiting list. If he wanted to get a bed there anytime soon, David would have to buy his freedom — in cash.
He was lucky – he and his sister were able to come up with the money. A $600 rent payment jumped him to the front of the line.
“I felt that I was being treated unfair,” he said. “I’d already fulfilled my obligation of my sentence. Why were they giving me such a hard time?”
David isn’t the only inmate in New Mexico forced to choose between staying behind bars or paying to parole more quickly. Two other men told Searchlight New Mexico that between 2017 and 2018, they paid $1,200 to get into La Pasada, a halfway house in Albuquerque. Several inmates at the Otero County Prison Facility, which houses many sex offenders, said they, too, were aware of the pay-to-play system.
“It’s outrageous,” said Matthew Coyte, an Albuquerque civil rights lawyer. “Making money the determination of whether you get released goes contrary to all the principles behind a just criminal justice system.”
Officials with the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) and La Pasada acknowledged that the arrangement existed.
“Some people can afford to get out — pay to get out,” said Daryl Agnes, La Pasada’s director. “Some people cannot. Which one is fair?” When asked to answer his own question, Agnes said: “There’s no good answer.”
When it comes to releasing sex offenders on parole, New Mexico has few good answers.
The sex offender label is broad and lumps together people who have been convicted of wildly different actions. Under New Mexico law, the term can describe a 19-year-old who had consensual sex with a 15-year-old as well as a person who violently raped a young child. David was sentenced to four years after being convicted of second-degree criminal sexual penetration of a 15-year-old when he was 23 (at the time, he said, he was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine). Searchlight is referring to him only by his first name because of societal stigma.
All sex offenders sent to New Mexico state prisons are required to be on parole, and they can’t get out of prison until the NMCD and the parole board approve their planned residence. While New Mexico’s laws, unlike those of many other states, do not actually restrict where sex offenders can live, state policy does.
Sex offenders on probation or parole are required to sign a contract saying they will only reside in places the state has inspected “for appropriateness” — a vague term that gives the government almost complete power over their residence. NMCD regulations further forbid them from living within 1,000 feet of “an area where children may frequent” — meaning a school, day care, or community center, among other places.
These policies made it difficult for David to find a place to live. He said he wasn’t allowed to live in his trailer because it was near a park, nor was he allowed to live in an apartment on his own. He wasn’t allowed to live with someone who physically resembled the victim of his crime, and he wasn’t permitted to live with his brother, who had a criminal history of his own.
In effect, La Pasada was his only option.
La Pasada remains the only halfway house for sex offenders coming out of state prisons. Normally, the state pays the $1,500 rent for the first month or two. But due to limited funds and beds, the waitlist is lengthy; in early July, 89 people were on the list, according to the NMCD. Many of those people are still serving prison sentences.
Inmates eligible for parole were given the option of paying rent themselves. If they took that path, they moved to the front of the line.
“As you get closer to your due date, then basically they’ll ask you, “Hey, are you paying for this?’” said a former inmate, who paid $1,200 in 2017 to get a bed at La Pasada.
This arrangement was part of a larger problem that affects New Mexico inmates convicted of all sorts of crimes. As of July 7, 90 inmates across the state had completed their prison sentences but haven’t been released. They are serving “in-house parole” – chipping away at their parole terms while remaining incarcerated; 20 of them were convicted of sex crimes, said Eric Harrison, an NMCD spokesman.
This is particularly concerning during the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the Otero County prison, a privately-run facility that houses many of the state’s sex offenders. More than 700 inmates have contracted COVID-19, and five have died.