This Prison Reform Advocate Was Cleared to Leave Prison but Her Release Has Been Delayed for Weeks

Supermajority Education Fund

May 13, 2020

Chalana McFarland, a mother and prison-reform advocate serving a 30-year sentence at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida, is anxiously awaiting the day she reunites with her family. The 51-year-old was cleared to leave prison to finish serving her sentence under home confinement because of the COVID-19 pandemic on April 8, but she has not received a release date yet. 

McFarland received the news of her release after Attorney General William Barr issued a directive to the Federal Bureau of Prisons on March 26 to release those in prison who are at-risk. The factors determining release under this policy include age, vulnerability to the virus, conduct, and offense. McFarland, who has sickle cell trait, asthma, and high blood pressure, is especially vulnerable and is also serving a sentence for mortgage fraud, a non-violent offense.

Although being released early would allow her to be closer to her family, McFarland, who began serving her sentence in 2005, hopes to be pardoned. In 2016, the Clemency Project 2014, a non-government affiliated organization of law organizations providing free legal assistance to clemency petitioners, filed a petition to the U.S. Pardon Office for McFarland that’s currently pending. Since being imprisoned, McFarland has been active in her community, co-founding a mentoring and re-entry initiative for incarcerated women. McFarland spoke to Supermajority News about why it’s taking weeks for her to be released and what needs to be done to help the incarcerated right now.

Supermajority News: An advocate at the CAN-DO Foundation told me that you’ve been cleared for release but have not been given a release date. When did you find out about your release and what is holding up your process?

Chalana McFarland: We heard about the William Barr memo first, and then I went to the unit secretary, and she said that she had a list and she checked the list, and she said, ‘Yes your names on the list. You qualify for release.” Then I waited maybe about four days more, and my case manager called me, and when I went in she asked me to sign my home confinement papers. And that was April 8.

[The hold up is] twofold. One is the staff is very overwhelmed with the number of people that they have to process, and secondly, I think the staff is unfamiliar with doing this type of release, so they don’t know, really, all the steps. Then probation doesn’t know what to do, and halfway house[s] don’t know what to do because it’s all being put together as a result of the William Barr memo, and the issue is that there is no training really in place [for this instance]. So every day, criteria is changing, and it’s a roller coaster ride.

It’s been over a month. Have you seen other people being released under this policy?

Yes. There have been people leaving, I don’t know, under what policies they’re leaving under because we’re quarantined by units … many of them I know had sentences left to serve so I can only assume because we all have different case managers. 

How has your facility handled COVID-19 so far?

If you show symptoms, they move you to the quarantine unit, and then if they feel you need medical treatment then they move you over to the men’s facility. They take the women and put them in the men’s facility and medical quarantine over there. Because of HIPAA, they don’t disclose [who has COVID-19]. You just know that they took the people and you don’t really know what’s happening to them and they’ll take the person that lives with them and put them in quarantine also. They stay for 14 days and then they can come back. 

What needs to be done to help people who are incarcerated right now?

I think they [the government] need to take the COVID scare seriously and realize that if you’re a low-risk offender and you’re not a danger to society, then they need to release you. They need to let you go home where you have a better ability to social distance. Most of the women at camp are white-collar or low-level drug offenders and they have families that are willing to take them. And we will be in home confinement, so it’s not as if we’re not paying our debt to society. The more people that they can let out, we’re not spreading it to each other ,and in the event that there is a massive outbreak they have [fewer] inmates to take care of. 

There [are] 400 women in the Coleman complex, and there are 6,000 men. So we are the last thought. When they took the women over to Low [the part of the facility holding incarcerated men]…they didn’t even have sanitary napkins. They had to roll up tissue until they could raise enough attention to get them to come and get them some tampons and pads, and that’s ridiculous. 

You’ve been active in your community and working toward your master’s degree. How far along were you in that achievement before being cleared for release?

I haven’t been able to work on it because of financial reasons. I was at Marianna [Federal Correctional Institution] when Hurricane Michael struck, and we lost everything, including almost our lives. And we were relocated twice before we ended up at Coleman, so I lost all my books. I had to buy all of my clothing again because it was all waterlogged. You have to replace them yourself, so that was an almost $1,000 loss over the things I had accumulated over the preceding 12 years. 

I don’t make much money working at UNICOR [a prison labor program]. They take half of my entire check towards my restitution. That $11 million that I owe. So I’m paying like almost $100 to $150 a month out of my earnings to pay restitution.

Do you feel you have the support you need to transition back into society? 

Well, I’m very fortunate because I have a very loving and stable family, and so they have been there for me. I will be going back to Atlanta, and I will live with my sister. Through friends that I had prior to my incarceration, I’ve had a few job offers. I don’t know with COVID-19 in play now how that’s going to work out exactly, but I do have enough skills to make myself employable at some point.

What else do you want people to know about the current challenges people who are incarcerated face?

A lot of the women here are mothers. Because of COVID-19, visitation has been shut down. So, a lot of us haven’t been able to see our kids now for months. That impacts the children. We do have the ability to do Skype videos with them but it’s not the same as being able to hug your mother. The kids don’t understand COVID-19. They just know that they can’t see mommy, so I think that’s important even though my daughter’s 20. She’s in college now, but you know she even said, “Mom, I was planning to come see you for my spring break and now I don’t know when I’ll get to see you.”