Prisoner mistakenly released early sues over re-arrest
Seattle – A man who was released early from a Washington state prison due to a software glitch is suing the Department of Corrections, saying his re-arrest three years later to serve the remaining time was illegal and upended the life he had painstakingly rebuilt.
Orlando Wright was released in 2012, 76 days early, from his eight-year term for robbery. He was one of more than 3,000 inmates released prematurely due to the coding error, which lasted from 2002 to 2015.
State authorities discovered the problem in 2012, but fixes were repeatedly delayed before the department notified Gov. Jay Inslee in late 2015. Amid a public outcry, the department re-arrested some offenders it had released early.
Among them was Wright, who by then says he had obtained an apartment, a car and a job at a car wash; enrolled in a welding program at a technical school; and had a baby daughter, whom he saw regularly. When he was released again in April 2016, that was all gone. He wandered the streets of Seattle for nearly two weeks, homeless.
“Seventy-six days: It’s just long enough to lose everything,” he said.
Spokesman Jeremy Barclay said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
According to a department report, officials reviewed more than 1,500 releases dating to 2011 and determined that 116 offenders should be re-arrested. Authorities decided not to re-arrest more than 1,000 others, under a state Supreme Court decision which held prisoners mistakenly released are entitled to credit for time spent at liberty if they don’t “abscond legal obligations.”
It’s not clear why officials targeted Wright, but it is possible they declined to credit the time he spent in the community because he had supervision violations, including drinking alcohol and failing to report, in the months after his release. He later completed alcohol treatment, and in early 2015 – a year before he was re-arrested – his community corrections officer notified King County Superior Court that Wright had “successfully completed his DOC supervision.”
The department has faced claims from the families of two people killed by prisoners freed early, settling one for $3.25 million. Barclay said he was not aware of other lawsuits brought by a re-arrested offender.
Several employees were demoted over the scandal. Four others resigned, including Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke, who had only became chief in October 2015 and brought the issue to the governor’s attention. Lawmakers also passed reforms designed to avoid future problems.
In his complaint, filed March 16 in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Wright, 37, seeks damages for wrongful arrest and constitutional violations. His maximum sentence date had expired, and officials had no authority to return him to prison over a mistake they had made and known about for three years, the complaint says.
Nevertheless, they re-arrested him. Instead of obtaining a warrant from a court, they issued a “secretary’s warrant” claiming he had escaped from custody or work-release – something his lawyer, Tiffany Cartwright, called “completely unauthorized.”
Further, he should have been credited his time in the community because – despite having some missteps – he completed his supervision and thus did not “abscond legal obligations,” she said.
“They knew the whole time they were releasing people early,” Cartwright said. “They let people go out and start to reintegrate and rebuild their lives, and when it became public, they wanted to make a big show and round everybody up.”
Wright served his sentence for robbing a man at an ATM, at gunpoint, of $300.
He said he didn’t believe his daughter’s mother when she told him in January 2016 that police were looking for him. But in the middle of the night, his mother called from Chicago: Federal marshals had come to her door.
“It was like a nightmare,” he said. “I was 100 percent sure I didn’t commit a crime. Why would they be looking for me?”
Days later, officers confronted Wright in his car, parked at a friend’s house. He served the 76 days at the prison. He never saw a judge or lawyer, he said, and though he knew he hadn’t escaped, he had no means to contest his confinement.
Meanwhile, he said, his roommate moved, unable to pay both shares of the rent. Wright’s possessions in the apartment vanished. The mother of his daughter filed for full custody, and he couldn’t attend the hearing because he was in prison. His car disappeared from the house where he’d been arrested.
When his time was up, prison authorities gave him $60 and sent him on his way.
He wandered Seattle for 13 days before falling asleep on a chair outside a friend’s house. The friend let him crash for a few days, and he eventually found an emergency shelter in nearby Bellevue. He resumed working days at a car wash, returning to the shelter at night with $100 in tips.
The shelter, Congregations for the Homeless, helped him land an apartment, he said, putting up money for the first and last months’ rent. He’s now re-enrolled at Renton Technical College, studying heating, venting and air conditioning.
Re-entering society after prison is hard enough, Wright said: “To make me do it again? I don’t think that’s right.”
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