COLUMNS

Bozelko column: When an absconder hasn’t absconded

Chandra Bozelko
More Content Now USA TODAY NETWORK
Taft Midway Driller

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

*****

No one should go to prison over a typo, but Renel Domond did.

Domond had been granted parole in 2017 after serving nearly nine years in prison. But on Nov. 13, 2020, the Connecticut Department of Corrections’ “elite, highly trained, seven-person fugitive unit” task force - as the Hartford Courant called it in 2012 - tracked Domond down outside a Vitamin Shoppe in Stamford and took him to nearby Bridgeport Correctional Center for allegedly “absconding” - intentionally slipping away from the community where he was to be supervised post-incarceration.

What Domond was doing was intentional, but he hadn’t slipped away. When small businesses were struggling, Domond’s, a smoothie bar called Juice Kings, was succeeding. He took college classes, helped run a community basketball league and sat on panels - virtually, because of the pandemic - about justice reform. Fliers announcing his appearance flitted through email inboxes, announcing the date and time audiences could log on to hear Domond speak. It was easier to find Domond than it was to lose him.

Dr. Erin S. Corbett, founder of Second Chance Education Alliance Inc., a Connecticut nonprofit that brings college courses into prisons and Domond’s professor, said in an email that “Renel was successfully balancing the demands of being a first-time, full-time undergraduate student. As a business owner, father, partner, justice advocate and student, he was exactly what the carceral system demands of released people re-acclimating to being in community.”

In short, Domond was the last person the task force should have dragged back to confinement. Not only was he doing well, the inability to find him wasn’t Domond’s fault. His former parole officer, Steven Faiella, misspelled Domond’s name in his cell phone and when he didn’t see his name, figured that his ward was on the lam.

This was not only an injustice but a danger during a time when the rate of COVID-19 spread in Connecticut prisons was growing; just days after Domond landed in the Bridgeport facility the first inmate death in about six months occurred there. The risk Domond carried with him as a member of the community threatened the inmates, and they endangered him in turn.

This isn’t limited to Domond. Around 25% of state prison admissions nationwide - around 280,000 people - are for technical violations, according to The Council of State Governments Justice Center in 2019. These inmates do the time but can’t do the crime; technical violations are, by their nature, not criminal acts. They’re usually omissions like failing to update an address or missing an appointment.

Of course, these errors may indicate other problems, but the Connecticut DOC admits that this is generally not the case. Interestingly, this summer the department issued a press release congratulating itself for a “progressive ideology” that reduced the number of technical violations between 2012 and 2019.

But in 2020, when remand to DOC custody became a potential death sentence because of COVID-19, the department didn’t cease technical violations. By July, 102 people had been violated and remanded, stated that same press release. It’s not clear whether they had new charges or not.

This year, at least since March, that number should be zero, both in Connecticut and beyond. Unless it’s a case of outright dangerousness - in which case the parolee would likely be facing new charges that might detain him - no one should be remanded to custody on a technical violation during the current coronavirus pandemic.

Some states have changed their supervision policies during the public health crisis, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Interestingly enough, most of the states that curbed their practice of remanding people on technical violations made absconding an exception; absconding will still get you locked up in states that are keeping other technical violators out of jail.

Most of the revisions to procedure affect reporting requirements but not limits on reincarcerating people. In Connecticut, for example, the state won’t allow probation officers to meet with their supervisees; all meetings are conducted through the telephone.

If a face-to-face connection between two people is ill-advised, then adding a new person to a group of 620 inmates (the number of people in the Bridgeport Correctional Center with Domond) who can’t socially distance is manifestly mindless.

Domond’s situation is so unfair that it leaves people looking for some justification, wondering why Domond didn’t reach out to his officer. The answer to that is simple: By corrections rules, inmates and supervisees do what they’re told. The good ones don’t improvise. Domond’s last direct order - to work, obey the law, be a good citizen - is exactly what he did.

That’s why it’s not unusual to find alleged absconders quietly abiding by the law. For example Richard Hall, a parolee in Florida, sent a letter to the judge assigned to his case informing the court of his relocation to another state - where he was living, crime-free, in plain sight - but an absconder warrant was still following him in 2019.

If Domond had been told to report, he would have done so. Parole officers had his email address, knew where he lived.

Somehow I don’t think Domond is the only one this has happened to. Pandemic chaos infected almost every government process. Normal cracks widened and likely pulled in more victims.

On Dec. 16, after an eight-minute hearing, Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Paroles released Domond from physical custody after his former parole officer Faiella admitted on the record (to his credit) that he had made an error.

But a month was gone - when it usually takes only three days of confinement to disrupt someone’s life, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute. And Domond left behind an unknown number of inmates who may have been incarcerated for a similar SNAFU or minor mistake.

Those prisoners should be released immediately. And then law enforcement should decide how progressive it is for them to fail to confirm that a person has actually absconded and then grab anyone off the street, much less returning citizens who confound expectations and actually flourish.

Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.