“Free to Go: Where?” was an article written by Cathy Murillo and published in December 2008 by The Santa Barbara Independent. Its subject was the late night release of Santa Barbara County Jail inmates. Eight years later, the midnight release is still going on. Why? We have a personal reason for asking.
Our son Kent was in Santa Barbara County Jail for about 10 weeks this summer and was scheduled for release on September 15. He was serving a sentence related to use and possession of a controlled substance. He was a very kind, gentle, generous, and loving young man who was battling opiate addiction. He never committed any violent crime and wouldn’t hurt a fly.
While he was serving his sentence, we visited him almost every Saturday. Kent looked great, sounded great, and seemed to be doing really well. He seemed to have a positive influence on his cellmates: They started working out together, playing volleyball, singing a cappella, and reading. He even asked us to donate some of our books to the jail, which we gladly did.
Kent had been 10 weeks sober while in jail. The last time we visited him, we asked him about his plan when he got out — would it be a medically assisted program like Suboxone or methadone? Kent said he didn’t want to start any pharmaceutical treatment — he didn’t want to be dependent on anything. In his mind he was confident he could do it. We were eager to help support his efforts in recovery when he was released, which would have been in a couple weeks. We never got the chance.
On August 25 at midnight, Kent was unexpectedly released from jail. He had no money and his cell phone was not with him. Our entire family was out of state due to a sudden family death; there was no one he could call. He had nothing except the clothes he was wearing when he was arrested: a T-shirt, shorts, and Ugg boots. He walked home to Carpinteria, but he was alone, exhausted, disoriented, and struggling to process his abrupt and solitary reentry into un-incarcerated life. Unfortunately, in that state he sought relief by self–medication.
Eight weeks after his early release and at the age of 31 he is dead, and although we do not yet know the direct medical cause of death, we believe a lifestyle dictated by addiction was at the very least a significant factor. We understand that recovery from addiction is a difficult and lifelong process, and it’s possible that he would have ended up dying from his choices at some later point. We do feel strongly, however, that his unanticipated release was a factor. We had planned to pick him up and ease him back into life outside jail, to encourage him to enter a recovery program which would have given him a better chance at a longer and hopefully sober life. Even without our presence, if there had been a support program in place to get him quickly to a safe, sober temporary shelter, he would have had a better chance.
Aside from our personal story, we now worry about the many inmates who don’t have any family or friends to support them after their release. Surely putting an at-risk individual onto the street late at night in a semi-remote area is something to be avoided — they are in a compromised and very vulnerable state. We understand that there are legal reasons for the midnight releases, and we are not finding fault with the Sheriff’s department — they are legally bound to abide by court decisions for release.
We have since heard that there are ongoing efforts (since at least 2008) to put a support network in place for inmate releases. If so, how does it work and are all inmates made aware of it? Is it offered to them, including those released earlier than originally scheduled? It’s too late for our son, but not too late for others. What can we do to help?