When Paul Manafort walked out of Loretto Federal Correctional Institution on Wednesday, he had about four years left on his sentence. He left behind a number of inmates who weren’t as lucky as he was.
David Barren, a fellow inmate at Loretto, isn’t Paul Manafort. He’s African-American. He never worked as a powerful Republican lobbyist or the president’s former campaign manager. And he didn’t commit millions of dollars of tax fraud, violate federal lobbying rules, or commit witness tampering while awaiting trial.
Instead, Barren committed non-violent drug offenses and got a sentence of life plus 20 years. Barren was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and prosecutors alleged that he and his associates had sold upwards of 500 pounds of cocaine in a period of two years. Like Manafort, who was convicted of hiding millions of dollars earned from unregistered lobbying activities on behalf of Ukraine’s pro-Russian government, Barren was also convicted of financial crimes—52 counts of money laundering for moving the proceeds of his sales through the banking system.
By all expectations, Barren should’ve been out of prison in January 2017 when President Obama commuted his life sentence along with 57 other prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.
But the kinds of breaks that people like Manafort get in life have a funny way of eluding people like Barren.
Barren’s life sentence was commuted, but to a sentence of 30 years in prison. For Barren, now 55 and with 12 years left to serve, that’s effectively a life sentence.
Like Manafort, Barren is worried about the possibility of getting coronavirus while trapped in prison.
“He went to his warden to apply for home confinement. His warden emailed him back and said that he hadn't served 50 percent of his sentence," Anrica Caldwell explains.
Caldwell is vice president of CAN-DO, a non-profit that advocates for clemency on behalf of non violent drug offenders. She’s also Barren’s partner and his “guardian angel,” helping with clemency appeals and advocating for him in the media.
The Bureau of Prisons has said that it’s prioritizing release for prisoners who’ve served at least half of their sentence or have 18 months remaining and have already served a quarter of their sentence.
Manafort, aged 71, was released after serving 23 months of his 7 and a half year sentence, well under the halfway threshold outlined in Bureau of Prisons guidelines.
In Barren’s case, Caldwell says the warden says he’d served only about 40 percent of his sentence, just missing that cutoff. But the Bureau ultimately has discretion over who can go home and who can stay.
That doesn’t mean release comes easy. All over the country, federal defense attorneys have been pressing prosecutors and judges to give their clients, trapped in near-perfect breeding grounds for a highly contagious virus, compassionate release. Some have gotten out but not without opposition from the government.
"Compassionate release is ad hoc,” says Sabrina Shroff, who until recently was a New York federal defender and continues to represent incarcerated clients since leaving the office.
“The same government that argues convening a grand jury is unsafe, objects to its agents being brought to court for a preliminary hearing on probable cause as their health could suffer, without compunction or concern says to a judge that a 150 men are safe on a floor where beds are less than a foot apart. If this isn't a double standard, I don't know what is."
Caldwell describes the news of Manafort’s release as “bittersweet.”
Living with a family member behind bars and potentially at risk of contracting COVID-19 has given Caldwell empathy for both Manafort and his wife, not envy. While Loretto has yet to report a coronavirus case, COVID-19 has torn through the cramped settings of both federal and state prisons around the country, killing at least 375 inmates around the country, according to statistic compiled by The New York Times. She doesn’t begrudge the Manaforts their good news.
“I sat next to these people more than once. Even his wife, we talked. We weren't friends or anything, but we had casual conversation because we both feel the same anxiety of our loved ones in prison.”
The question, for her, is one of equity.
“I don't want Manafort to die in there at 71. But my thing is, what about David?”
Now into middle age, Barren doesn’t appear to be a risk to the community. Prosecutors never alleged that he’d used violence in the course of those offenses and, despite a few misdemeanor possession charges, he’s never been charged with a violent crime. In prison, he’s been a model of good behavior. Barren, a trained draftsman before his conviction, used the time behind bars to improve himself and aced a correspondence course to be a certified paralegal with a 4.0 grade average.
Caldwell is concerned not just about Barren, but his family. Barren’s parents, now in their 80s, visit him regularly on Sundays. Caldwell says he’s worried about them in the pandemic.
“His parents don't really have anybody. They've been an integral part of his life, even right now. “But his father's health is deteriorating.”