MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Dozens of female prisoners across the state, including Shelby County, have been granted parole but remain behind bars.
Their releases are delayed because access to classes the inmates must take before gaining freedom has been postponed due to the pandemic.
After serving nearly a year behind bars for aggravated assault, Ronesha Owens was granted parole last month. However, she is still sitting in a prison cell, locked away from her family, including her young son.
“She depressed, she stressed out, she just called me crying,” said Owens’s mom, Demetria Hobbs. “She said she doesn’t feel safe.”
Hobbs said her daughter doesn’t feel safe behind bars because of COVID-19.
Owens is being held at the Shelby County Correctional Center. Currently, 97 inmates, male and female, have COVID-19.
Even though Owens has been cleared for parole, there are classes she needs to complete inside the jail before her release.
Those classes have been canceled because of the pandemic, and they won’t resume until later this fall.
“They could become deathly ill and they could die. What is the point of that?” asked Nashville attorney David Raybin.
Raybin recently sent a letter asking the Tennessee Board of Parole to release inmates, like Owens, and his client Elizabeth George, who have both already been vetted by the parole board and are simply waiting to complete their pre-parole programs.
The programs address behavioral issues like addiction, stress and anger.
“I’m all in favor of programs. The problem is the availability of programs,” said Raybin. “Even in normal times, it was difficult to get into these programs.”
The Tennessee Department of Correction hosts the programs inside its own prisons.
A TDOC spokesperson confirmed that class hours have been reduced to allow for social distancing and so, “the program will extend over a longer calendar period.”
Meanwhile, the Shelby County Division of Corrections has canceled all vocational, therapeutic and religious courses and activities, it says, to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
“They’re not getting any rehabilitation. They’re just sitting there and worse, they’re subject to the virus,” said Raybin.
Raybin’s fight for the release of female inmates is new but in March, he sent a letter to the parole board asking that all male inmates granted parole be released.
For months now, the WMC Action News 5 Investigators have been following the cases of those hundreds of Tennessee inmates who are still behind bars despite being granted parole.
At the time, there were nearly 1,600 inmates who had been paroled and yet, remained behind bars.
We asked the Board of Parole how many male inmates had been released since that time.
A spokesperson wrote in an email:
“The board does not have that information. Some of those offenders have already been released through this expedited review.”
Demetria Hobbs is asking for the same thing on her daughter's behalf.
“If they paroled her, I don’t understand why she can’t take her classes on the outside,” said Hobbs. “That’s what she wants. She wants to take her classes on the outside.”
The most recent data available from the Tennessee Department of Correction shows that 67 female inmates were granted parole in May and 38 were released.
The Board of Parole wrote in a statement that it is working with TDOC to “address any issues, including the availability of TDOC-managed institutional programming that may be required as part of an offender’s parole conditions.
The board is also looking into the concerns raised by Mr. Raybin.”