By Joey Horan and Tom Brouns, special to Outlier Media

February 25, 2021

Angela Spangler expected her partner, Justin Eskildsen, to be released from Marquette Branch Prison on January 9. He had served his minimum sentence, nearly two years, and had been granted parole.

But as that date crept closer, Eskildsen sensed something was off – he hadn’t received any paperwork detailing his release. At the end of December, he called home to let Spangler and their four kids know he wouldn’t be out on the 9th. 

“It was devastating,” said Spangler, who lives in Grand Haven. “You count on somebody to be here and everything’s all set. Now we’re stuck, we can’t do anything, we don’t even know when he’s going to get released now.”

The reason for Eskildsen’s delay: he had not completed a course recommended to him by the parole board. He was halfway through the course when a massive COVID-19 outbreak swept through the prison in October, infecting nearly 90 percent of the population and putting all classes on indefinite hold.

Nearly 250 incarcerated Michiganders are caught in similar limbo. The parole board won’t release them until they complete their coursework, but their coursework has been significantly delayed due to COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons across the state. The Michigan Department of Corrections would not confirm the exact number of people in this situation. In early January, the number was reported as “more than 240” by Deadline Detroit

Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesperson, did say that classrooms present a heightened risk of virus transmission because prisoners from different housing units who are otherwise separated throughout the day congregate there.

Gautz said prison officials are now working to organize class cohorts by housing unit. He also said MDOC is exploring virtual classes.

“We’re trying as hard as we can to get people through those classes,” Gautz said. “What we won’t do is change the standard of parole.”

Quarterly reports issued by MDOC show the parole board released fewer people in 2020 than it did in each of the previous three years. 

Gautz explained that the decrease in paroles is because there are currently fewer people in prison – 33,000 – than in previous years. “The number of prisoners who are eligible for parole has continued to decline as our population declines,” Gautz said.

Jacqueline Williams is not satisfied by this explanation. She prepares incarcerated Michiganders for the parole process for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization that operates the Michigan Criminal Justice Program. Williams believes prisons should be releasing more people than typical considering the severity of the pandemic in the state’s prisons.

“The parole board is operating as a sort of business as usual model,” Williams said. “I believe that the state as a whole, if they would really like to complete and carry out their mission of trying to provide public-safety, that they really need to understand the depth of what that means.”

When a recommendation is now a requirement

More than two-thirds of Michigan’s prison population – more than 23,000 people – have caught COVID-19 and 138 people have died from the virus as of February 24. Nearly 4,000 prison staff have caught the virus, and four have died.

Williams said Eskildsen’s case particularly troubled her because the course delaying his release was recommended, rather than required, and unrelated to his current charge. Eskildsen is serving time for driving while intoxicated, but he’s being held up by a delay in a domestic violence prevention course. 

MDOC declined to provide Outlier with the number of people awaiting release because of recommended, rather than required, programming.

“I can understand if it was a totally related case,” said Eskildsen, who has previously been charged with misdemeanor domestic violence. “But they’re holding me up for something I already served time for, that’s part of my past.”

While Eskildsen’s parole has been delayed because of coursework, Outlier reviewed other cases where parole was denied outright because of incomplete coursework. A parole denial typically results in a person waiting another year before seeing the parole board again.

Chrystal Baker at the Women’s Huron Valley Prison was denied parole because she had not completed a required substance abuse class. 

Baker’s denial stated that “programming is not available in the community and the risk cannot be adequately managed in the community before completion.” The prison, however, has not offered substance abuse coursework since March of 2020, said Baker.

Baker’s husband, Ted, also said he provided the parole board with proof of available substance abuse programming in their hometown of Port Huron. Gautz of MDOC said the Parole Board does allow certain programs, including substance abuse classes, to be completed in the community. 

“The classes are here,” Ted Baker said. “I went to Sacred Heart myself and got the package and I sent it to the parole board.”

Both Bakers said the denial was mystifying and devastating amid the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, Chrystal has not tested positive for this virus.

“There’s no reason why I should be sitting here on a 12-month continuance for something I didn’t do,” Chrystal Baker said. “And if there was a reasoning, they should have put it on the paper. But it strictly says programming. That’s it.”  

“If you ask me,” Ted Baker said, “she’s sitting there on death row for a DUI.”

When asked about Baker’s denial, Gautz wrote in an email: “[She] Has multiple drunk driving convictions, including multiple accidents. Has performed poorly in the past on community supervision in terms of maintaining sobriety.” 

Gautz said there are often more factors going into the parole decision making process than meet the eye. But the raw numbers for the pandemic year of 2020 show that even when complex decisions came before the parole board in a time of crisis, the pandemic has not shifted how the parole board determines releases.

“What is riskier?”

Jacqueline Williams of AFSC believes the data demonstrate a flawed and narrow risk assessment by the parole board. “What is riskier: to keep more people inside throughout the pandemic, allow the virus to boomerang back and forth from prison to community over and over again, [or] have someone participate in a free world substance use program?” she said.

Matt Wiese is president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan and Marquette County Prosecutor. His organization broadly supports strict adherence to sentencing requirements. Wiese said he would not have a problem seeing otherwise parole-ready people released on the condition that they take required programming in the community.

“If that’s truly the only thing holding them back,” Wiese said, “I wouldn’t have a problem with them as part of their parole doing the rest of the program [in the community].”

Baker does not have the option to complete a course in her community because MDOC has put her in a bureaucratic bind. The parole board determined she is a risk to society because she hasn’t gone through a substance abuse class. But she can’t reduce this risk because the MDOC hasn’t run the class she needs in nearly a year. 

Kristopher Martin, who is incarcerated at Macomb Correctional Facility, was also confident going into his parole hearing last September.  He had received an MDOC report stating he was a “high probability for parole.” That “high probability” guideline is based on a scoring system that takes into account various factors – like prior criminal record, age, and conduct within the prison – to calculate someone’s readiness for parole.

When the Parole Board departs from the guideline, it “must be for substantial and compelling reasons,” as outlined in a departmental policy directive.

In Martin’s case, the Parole Board did depart from the guideline and denied him parole. The “substantial and compelling reasons for guideline departure” consisted of a single line: “P [sic] must complete department recommended programming before considering risk reduction.” 

As in Baker’s case, the board said they could not evaluate Martin’s risk to society without him completing coursework that the MDOC had not made available to him.

It is impossible to know whether Martin’s parole denial is just because he hasn’t taken the class or if the parole board would still consider him a risk even if he had taken the class. Gautz of MDOC points to the fact that Martin’s crime, driving while intoxicated, resulted in the death of another person. 

Martin’s mother, Jewell Martin, is frustrated by the decision. Her son has been incarcerated for more than five years, during which the MDOC did not make the course available to him. The MDOC typically waits until the final 18 months of a person’s minimum sentence to enroll them in their required programming. 

“You can’t go [to class] when you want to go, you have to wait for them to sign you up and get you in the class,” she said. “They didn’t make sure he got his class done.” 

The denial has put Martin in a serious medical bind. He is living with a brain and spinal condition, a Chiari Malformation, that causes nerve damage and requires surgery. Martin is choosing to delay the surgery because he does not want to lose his spot in substance abuse classes and risk another 12-month parole denial.

“If I have the surgery, miss my class even one day, I get kicked out and have to wait months to get back in,” Martin said via JPay, a prison email service. 

Back in Marquette Branch Prison, Justin Eskildsen’s release may be imminent. He completed his recommended coursework in mid-February, but he still doesn’t know when the parole board will actually grant his release. For Angela Spangler and their kids in Grand Haven, that continues to mean “less food on the table.”

“Meanwhile his family suffers and falls farther behind without his help,” she wrote to Outlier in a text. “The kids need their dad.”

**An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of one of our sources. It is Spangler, not Spangeler. The story has been updated and we regret the error.