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The Revolving Door

Some parolees face a run-on sentence.

Atif Gamal can open the door or close it. Either way, he loses.

If he keeps the door closed, the walls start to close in on him. His room at the 11th Avenue Hotel is not much larger than the average prison cell, and he's had enough of prison life lately, thank you.

If he opens the door, then the neighbors drift in, like flotsam carried by some infernal tide. They bum cigarettes and start inane conversations, but their eyes are raking the room, taking inventory. His radio. His watch. Anything they can boost and sell for dope or booze money is noted and filed away for later consideration.

The out leads in: Atif Gamal figures it's just a matter of 
time until he's behind bars again.
John Johnston
The out leads in: Atif Gamal figures it's just a matter of time until he's behind bars again.

One thing they don't see is any ready cash. The small manila envelope on Gamal's dresser contains exactly sixteen cents, the sum total of his liquid assets five days into his new life. "I'm trying to think of something I can splurge on," Gamal says.

It's a cold day in January, and Gamal is fresh out of prison -- again. Fifty-three years old and diagnosed with severe depression and a possible bipolar condition, he's been bouncing around the system for nearly three years on a minor drug charge, from halfway house to prison to parole and back again, with no end in sight. The Denver parole office paid for two weeks' stay at the 11th Avenue Hotel, a way station for homeless parolees, but what happens next is anybody's guess. Gamal knows one thing: He needs to find another place to live.

"The police could clear out two-thirds of this place if they wanted, but parole officers never come here," he says. "I can't stay here, with people who get high all the time. I can't go to a drop-in shelter, where they put you out in the morning. Eventually, I would just have something to drink to kill the misery."

His parole officer has been prodding him to hit the day-labor pools. Gamal's checked them out but says he can't possibly earn enough that way to survive. His mental illness makes it almost impossible for him to hold a job, he adds: "It's like asking a legless person to run up ten flights of stairs." His financial planning at this point consists of slowly pawning items he's had in storage the past three years and trying to get his disability payments started again.

"I know how to do parole," he says. "I know how to make the right choices. But trying to comply with this parole is not in my best interest. These people didn't create my homelessness, but they are sure as hell facilitating it."

Gamal insists he's not an addict or an alcoholic, but he can see how it might be just a matter of time until the drug tests required as a condition of his parole turn up dirty. "You don't have a lot of time to make this work," he says. "You don't want to rob nobody. So you sit around and drink to get rid of those thoughts. You don't want to sell drugs. But you go out and use them."

Gamal is one of thousands of low-level, nonviolent offenders who can't seem to find their way out of the Colorado criminal-justice system. By the calendar, they've already served most or all of the original sentence the judge gave them; their continuing offense, though, is their inability to comply with the sometimes contradictory conditions of parole. It's a situation that sent more than 2,000 parolees back to prison last year on technical violations and costs the state millions annually in prison costs.

A former community activist, Gamal was living with his fifteen-year-old daughter three years ago when he was charged with possession of less than half a gram of powder cocaine. He pleaded guilty and received two years' probation. Three months later, he flunked a drug test; Denver District Judge Paul Markson revoked his probation and sent him to community corrections for eighteen months. At the halfway house, he got into an altercation with his roommate. Ejected from his community placement, Gamal was resentenced by Markson to eighteen months in prison, with an additional two years of mandatory parole; in effect, his sentence was doubled.

The state public defender's office is currently appealing Markson's decision, which was issued without a hearing. But the time Gamal was expected to serve just kept getting longer. In June 2001, he was released on parole for the first time. Six months later, his parole was revoked for "failure to notify [parole] of a change of address." (Gamal says he'd refused to stay in the shelter he was assigned and eventually stopped checking in with his supervisor.) During the revocation hearing, his parole officer urged that Gamal serve the rest of his time behind bars, since he appeared incapable of complying with the conditions of parole.

Gamal would have been willing to do just that. But after serving twelve additional months in prison, he learned that another year had been tacked onto his remaining parole time. In 1998, the state legislature had, without much fanfare, amended the parole statutes so that parole violators would have to complete up to twelve months of "post-parole supervision," regardless of the circumstances of their revocation. Corrections officials began imposing the post-parole parole last fall, much to the consternation of prisoners who thought their sentences were close to being discharged.

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