The goal of 'compassionate release' for incarcerated criminals may be to reduce their risk of contracting COVID. But the unintended consequence has been new risks for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse as their convicted abusers are returned to the community.
In New Hampshire, some victims have been forced to flee their homes as defense attorneys push to have their abusers released from prison.
"They feel like the system is just failing them, they're feeling unsafe," said Tiffany Roberts with Starting Point, a nonprofit helping victims of sexual and domestic abuse in Carroll County. Roberts has been sitting in on hearings in which early release for the perpetrators of this violence is being discussed.
"It's been traumatic for the victims," she said.
Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, said the prospect of abusers getting out is wreaking havoc in the lives of survivors.
"In one case, a survivor was forced to leave the safety of her own home and to seek confidential housing in order to protect herself from a dangerous abuser who petitioned for release due to health concerns around COVID. No victim or family member should ever be displaced because the system decided their offender's safety was more important than theirs," she said.
Roberts said she has also had at least one survivor who has felt forced to flee her home at the prospect of an abuser getting out.
New Hampshire Department of Corrections officials did not respond when asked for the number of inmates released in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, a total of 184 inmates and 58 staff have recently tested positive at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord, one of several outbreaks in a state correctional facility.
Outbreaks have also been recorded in the Secure Psychiatric Unit in Concord, the state's Northern N.H. Correctional Facility in Berlin, and the Hillsborough, Merrimack, and Strafford County jails.
In response, some advocates are calling for more so-called 'compassionate release.' Robin Melone, president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, recently told NHPR that more needs to be done to keep prisoners safe.
"We have to do something, because it's going to get worse, and people are going to die," Melone told NHPR.
Melone did not respond to an NHJournal request for comment.
Grady Sexton said recent media efforts to highlight the COVID-19 concerns for inmates have completely ignored the plight of victims.
"Our crisis centers are working with survivors of domestic and sexual violence across the state who are terrified that their abusers will be granted early release. Their voices have been absent from recent media reports," Grady Sexton said.
In fact, the NHPR report cited previously focused on the potential risks to three state prison inmates, but failed to mention the crimes that put them behind bars: Zebadiah Kellogg-Roe, a man convicted of raping a 12-year-old; John Gosselin, who is serving time after shaking a two-year-old to death; and Ransford Lovely Jr., a previously convicted sex offender last sent to prison for child molestation and animal cruelty.
Lovely Jr. died in prison on December 16, 2020. A family member claims it was due to COVID-19.
Prisons should be focusing on keeping staff and inmates safe and healthy, rather than putting the burden back on the outside community and the survivors, Grady Sexton said. In many cases, these men are going to be sent back if they get released early.
"Defense attorneys are pushing for 'compassionate release' of inmates across the state, but it's not in the best interest of the public, victims, or the offender to release violent offenders prior to completing their sentence and plans for rehabilitation," she said. "Nor is it safe or compassionate to release anyone without stable housing and a comprehensive plan for community support."
Grady Sexton said there is no safe and secure way, from the survivor's perspective, for the state to monitor these inmates outside of prison before they are ready.
"Ankle bracelets are not monitored in real-time, and home confinement is not a safe answer to cases where an inmate is serving time for violent offenses," she said.
Roberts said survivors go through an enormous amount of pain and suffering, and when an abuser finally gets incarcerated that is time for the survivor to breathe. They are able to get safe, healthy, and plan for the future. That's all been upended with the push for compassionate release. Roberts said women and children are being forgotten by the system.
"The crux of the issue is why are we putting the rights of violent offenders over the rights of the victims," Roberts said. "Often those victims are women and children. They're putting the rights of men over the rights of women and children."
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