PJ Abernathy was tattooing the Denver skyline on a fellow inmate the day he learned about his early release.
“We used to cover the intercoms whenever we tattooed in prison,” he said. “So they couldn't listen to the noise going on in the cell. And so we hear a muffled, you know, ‘Phillip Abernathy, get down to case management right now.’"
"And, you know, I thought I was in trouble, but it turns out I sit down and my case manager hands me some paperwork and it says ‘early release due to COVID-19 considerations.’ And I just, I burst into tears right there. It was just the last thing I expected," he said. "I literally expected to be handed a write up for doing something wrong. And instead I got told I was getting out of prison.”
Abernathy is one of about 300 Colorado prison inmates released early because of COVID-19. In March, in response to growing concerns about the virus spreading in corrections facilities, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order relaxing standards around early release.
The 28-year-old Abernathy was doing time for a felony menacing conviction at the privately run Crowley County Correctional Facility east of Pueblo. He was let out several months early because he was considered a low risk to reoffend and was already so close to his release date.
COVID-19 has become a serious issue for some of the state’s prisons. The Colorado Department of Corrections has reported several large outbreaks of the virus and nearly 900 positive cases in total since the beginning of the pandemic.
Not long after Abernathy’s release in late April, the Crowley County Correctional Facility started confirming what would eventually be dozens of COVID-19 cases. It now has the third-largest cluster of all prisons in the state.
Crowley County Correctional Facility is owned and operated by the company, CoreCivic. Spokeswoman, Amanda Gilchrist, said in a statement that all 66 COVID-positive individuals at Crowley have recovered and there have been no virus-related deaths at the facility. By comparison, there have been three reported deaths from COVID at the Sterling Correctional Facility, and there have been more than 500 positive cases there.
Gilchrist said that they are “working with local and state health departments to conduct appropriate testing.” She said all employees are screened upon entering a CoreCivic facility. And then inmates transferring into a facility are screened by medical staff so they can isolate people who are deemed high risk.
Abernathy doesn’t know if he contracted the virus while inside the prison because he said he hasn’t been tested. But he said the fear was real.
“I think for an inmate it's a lot scarier than it is in society,” he said. “One of the things I've noticed since getting out is there's a lot of people who really don't take it very seriously at all, but in prison it's a pretty serious thing for everybody.”
He said that’s because conditions are so tight.
“Prison itself is a jar of sardines that you're shoved into,” he said. “And you have a defacto living partner who is your cellmate. Whenever you're locked down in your cell — which is at least half the day — most of the time, you're no more than five feet away from that person. So their choices during the day and how clean they choose to be ultimately is your choice as well, whether or not you want it to be or not.”
Abernathy said he couldn’t escape possible exposure to the virus outside his cell either.
“Just the basic nature of prison, being a pressure cooker of people who live on top of each other, work out with the same equipment, you know, on the same tables, eat off the same trays all day long, sort of makes the idea of social distancing, a joke,” he said.
There’s a lawsuit against the state now for just that reason. Polis allowed his executive order for early release standards to expire after a man got out of prison and shortly after was arrested on suspicion of first degree murder. So the ACLU filed suit on behalf of families of nonviolent or medically vulnerable offenders — asking for their loved ones to be considered for early release to keep them safe from COVID-19.
“We encourage the practice of social distancing for all individuals within our facilities,” said CoreCivic’s Gilchrist.
But Annie Skinner, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections, said she agreed that social distancing in prison, especially with a cellmate, might not be possible.
Abernathy said he did try to protect himself the best he could.
“You know, I definitely washed my hands like a maniac — probably about 10 times a day,” he said.
Abernathy had already contracted a serious staph infection on his skin earlier during his prison time.
“So having been through that,” he said. “I was already aware of just how gross prison really is.”
Gilchrist said they do have sanitation protocols in place. CoreCivic has provided masks to inmates and staff and that staff are required to wear masks unless they're eating or drinking, she said. And the prison is also making disposable gloves available for staff that are conducting searches and handling property. They encourage all staff and inmates to practice “regular hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette (coughing or sneezing into a sleeve or tissue), and avoiding touching one’s face.”
In addition, CoreCivic cleans and disinfects surfaces, objects and shared equipment that are touched by staff and inmates.
Abernathy said inmates were required to wear masks in the meal line. But they “would be nose and toes with the person in front of us and we would sit right next to them when we sat down and take our masks off.
“So it's sorta like, you know, six feet away is impossible in that environment,” he said.
He said he was glued to the radio for news, but that he didn’t get much information from the prison itself.
“It leaves open a lot of opportunities for people to make things more fantastic than they really are,” Abernathy said.
CoreCivic’s Amanda Gilchrist said the company has plenty of ways they communicate with inmates about COVID-19 safety. The prison had regular town hall meetings, posted flyers and presented information over the closed circuit television system to “encourage inmates, to take effective steps, to prevent the transmission of the virus.”
Abernathy’s fears went beyond the prison walls to concerns about his family’s health.
“That's the number one fear of any inmate is something happening to their family while you're in there,” he said. “You can't do anything to help that person.”
He said he was most concerned about his father who is older and has a blood pressure condition.
“Every day was just me wondering if this was going to be the day where he got sick,” he said. “And listening to story after story about, you know, people who get this virus and three weeks later, they're gone.”
That feeling of distance from his loved ones was made worse when the prison ended visitations — right before his birthday.
“I remember I had a visit scheduled to see my mom and my dad,” he said. “And they canceled the visit.”
The prison did institute video visits, but Abernathy said those didn’t pan out equally for all inmates.
“It sort of perpetuated some inequalities in a way,” he said. “I noticed that the only people who got video visits were people who had some money on their books or money coming in to them. So it was kind of unfair, you know, people who normally would get visits there, their loved ones didn't have access to technology or couldn't figure it out. And so only the more well off inmates got those kinds of visits.”
He said he sees early release in the same light.
Abernathy’s crime was a violent one. He assaulted a close friend while he was hallucinating on drugs. He is also a registered sex offender because of pornography that he had on his computer when he was 18. When asked if he feels he deserved to be released early while others with less violent offenses remain in prison, he says, “honestly, no.”
“There's people in prison right now who did far less than me and got far more time,” he said. “And that's a big burden on me is feeling like I don't deserve to be out here.”
He recalled the man in the cell next to him.
“He got 16 years for stealing cell phones,” said Abernathy. “He's a black guy and, and here's me some, you know, white kid from a privileged neighborhood who stabbed somebody in the head with a pair of scissors. You know, granted I was on shrooms, but that's a serious crime and it's violent. And what he did isn't violent, but he got 16 years. And I remember listening to that story and that's just one of hundreds in prison.”
Skinner, with the Department of Corrections, said the early releases were in no way arbitrary. She said the department evaluated and released inmates in accordance with the governor's executive order. She said the decisions were based on publicly posted, detailed criteria.
But Abernathy said seeing inequalities in prison changed the way he looked at everything.
“I was a Trump supporter before I went to prison. And, you know, I'll try not to get too much into politics, but all I have to say is that when you actually are exposed to inequalities and you actually see the difference in the way that institutional America treats minorities compared to white people, or just people who aren't in poverty, which is really the defining line, it hurts your heart,” he said. “When you realize that you're part of the other half, where you actually do have privilege, you feel like you don't deserve it at all.”
He said one of the reasons he was cleared for early release was having a parole address, which is a house that his parents own in Denver, that he lives in now with his sister. Housing is an obstacle to people in poverty who have no property or home to their name, Abernathy said.
“So where are they going to go when they get out?” he asked.
Halfway houses carry their own risks during a pandemic. And on top of the health risks of group living, the wait lists for community corrections tend to be long — especially in Denver, where most of the privately-run halfway houses were recently shut down.
Abernathy clearly remembers the day he was released.
“I remember just feeling like I was in a dream. You get this crazy outfit to wear. It's some donated clothes. And I remember being on this prison bus and driving out of the gates. And that was the first time I hadn't been inside of razor wire for two years,” he said. “Walking out of a door and smelling the fresh air and seeing my family's vehicle and just knowing that this is finally, finally happening.”
Abernathy was recently featured in a Newsy documentary. He told Colorado Matters that his life has turned around since getting out, and he doesn’t fear he’ll reoffend. He works a construction job six days a week.
“I work my ass off and make a decent life and spend a ton of time with my family. And I couldn't be happier,” he said.
He was released into a world entirely changed by this global pandemic. But Abernathy said he doesn’t feel like that’s what’s restricting him.
“No, because my world is still very constricted,” he said. “I have a GPS monitor on and a curfew and, you know, I don't go to bars. I don't do a whole lot except for work. And so it's not like I'm really feeling like I'm missing out on much. If anything, it's actually probably made it a little bit easier.”
Pandemic parole, though, “is kind of bizarre,” he said. Communication between a parole officer and an inmate right now is very short and to the point.
“It's basically, are you following the rules? Are you selling drugs? Are you getting high? Are you doing anything wrong? If not, I don't really care,” he said. “You know, that's basically what's going on.”
The communication is so limited, Abernathy is sometimes afraid he might violate parole unintentionally.
“Yes. It scares me a lot,” he said. “I always feel like I'm not communicating enough.”
For example, he said he’s supposed to call the parole phone line every day and leave a message for his parole officer telling them where they're going for the day.
“With all the extra people who have been released,” Abernathy said, “I can call them six times during the day and never get through. I can be on hold for over an hour and just the call gets dropped. And technically, if you skip one day of calling, that's a parole violation. So what is somebody on parole supposed to do in this situation?”
Skinner said Abernathy’s experience with the phone system doesn't represent a widespread issue. She said the system appears to be working fine, and if a parolee has issues with it, they need to speak with their parole officer.
Abernathy said he feels enormously lucky to be back in society.
“Instead of focusing on the things I can't do anymore,” he said. “I can actually look at things that I can do compared to prison. It's given me some space and perspective in my life that I really needed.”