The Revolving Door
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.
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.
For a chronic parole problem like Gamal, the implications of the new law are staggering. He could end up serving his entire mandatory parole period behind bars, come out, fail to complete twelve months of post-parole supervision -- and go back inside for another twelve months. Then come out again, go back, come out, go back...until the parole board eventually tires of seeing him.
"It's an illegal sentence," Gamal says. "I don't see any way to ever get through it."
Gamal is hardly alone in his complaints. "It's like going to the hospital, thinking you got a clean bill of health -- and then as you're walking out the door, they say, 'Oh, by the way, you've got cancer,'" says Rudy, a 33-year-old parolee who's now doing his post-parole time. "I screwed up on parole, but my punishment was to go back to prison and do day-for-day -- which I did, for 21 months. The judge didn't say nothing about doing this extra year."
As in Gamal's case, Rudy's slide into the system started out with a relatively minor felony, complicated by chronic substance abuse. A drummer with a death-metal band, he was charged with criminal trespass after playing a gig in a warehouse without the owner's permission. Hot UAs turned his probation into a two-year prison stretch, with two years of mandatory parole. He spent ten months inside, ten months in a halfway house and three months on parole before being revoked for drinking. Result: 21 more months in prison -- and now another year of post-parole supervision to go.
The protracted sentence strikes Rudy as more than slightly insane. "Here I am, a nonviolent guy -- yeah, I have a problem with substance abuse, but I went to rehab -- and they want to keep me on paper. Okay, I'm going to do it their way. But it's causing me great distress, financially and otherwise, and it's just costing them more money, too."
Parole officers point out that violators are rarely revoked for a single dirty UA or minor miscue; often, even a seemingly petty violation such as the failure to report a change of address is an indication of a return to more serious criminal activity. Still, some officers aren't big fans of the post-parole law, which adds to their caseloads folks who've already demonstrated a flair for violating parole -- and which was passed without any appropriation to cover the added costs it would incur.
The DOC estimates that post-parole supervision costs the state an additional $1.7 million a year. But that estimate is based on the starry-eyed assumption that the parolees involved will complete their year without further revocations. And that seems unlikely, particularly in the case of someone like Atif Gamal.
Two weeks ago, the General Assembly passed a package of legislation aimed at cutting prison costs. One of the bills, SB 252, will give the parole board greater flexibility in placing nonviolent parole violators in community-corrections programs rather than sending them back to prison. The bill also abolishes the post-parole supervision whammy.
Although a major victory for reformers, the bill will do little to alleviate Gamal's situation. For a time after his release last January, it appeared that he was getting some of the assistance he was seeking to move out on his own and live independently. But then things began to unravel.
With his parole officer's blessing, Gamal moved out of the 11th Avenue Hotel. He started receiving disability payments again and talked to his daughter in California about a possible visit. Staffers at the Inmann Work and Family Center urged him to make use of their mental-health services. His parole officer insisted on it.
But Gamal became increasingly uncooperative. He doesn't have anything against the Inmann Center -- "I think it's the only part of the system that's really doing anything to help people," he says -- but he doesn't want the government poking around in his head. He doesn't see why he should be forced to serve this post-parole jolt, which he regards as illegal. Maybe guys like Rudy can just play the game, get it over with, but he refuses to do that.
There were problems at his new hotel, problems with his drug tests. One came back positive for cough syrup, another for cocaine.
"There was a period of three days -- I guess you could say I was trying to get my freak on," Gamal says. "I associated with two women. One was a registered guest of the hotel, the other was a friend of hers I smuggled through the window. I was in a car with them while they were passing a pipe back and forth. But, no, I didn't have any."
Facing parole demands that he enter a rehab program, Gamal quietly left his hotel in late April. He has not bothered to report his new address. This is all part of "a conscious effort on my part to adjust my own behavior," he says. He plans to live a quiet, sober life until The Man comes around to pick him up.
"Eventually these people are going to put me back in prison," he says. "Then a year from now, I'll be out and going through the same thing again. That's complete political folly."
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