Fidel Torres, 62, would have walked free in less than two years. Instead he died on May 20 in the Federal Medical Center in Lexington Kentucky from complications related to Covid-19. 

Convicted on conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 2,000 pounds of marijuana, Torres is among several pot prisoners to die while in prison for a crime that is practically legal in most states. 

“He never should have gone to prison for pot in the first place,” said Amy Povah, founder and president of the CAN-DO Foundation. 

“All pot prisoners should be released immediately, for logical reasons. People are making billions of dollars selling pot legally and others are rotting in jail for long periods. The whole situation is beyond unfair and unjust.” 

Torres, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), tested positive for COVID-19 on May 2, was admitted to a local hospital on May 6 and placed on a ventilator. He died from septic shock caused by Covid-19-related pneumonia on May 20, the same day that Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, was sent home after spending one year in prison.

Relatives and groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) say there are hundreds of thousands of prisoners without influential contacts who also meet the requirements for release yet are still languishing behind bars. 

“Fidel Torres was 62 years old and was nearing the end of a lengthy sentence for selling marijuana. He seems like a poster child for home confinement,” Kevin Ring, director of FAMM, told the Huffington Post.

Cases like Torres’ show that the BOP needs to do more to expand home confinement to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ring noted. 

 “Even if one assumes the BOP is acting with the best of intentions, its decision-making process is impossible to understand,” Ring said.

As far as Amy Povah is concerned, the BOP and Department of Justice (DOJ) are not acting with the best of intentions. 

“This tragedy will go down in history and those responsible have blood on their hands. Both DOJ and BOP,” Povah told High Times.

COVID-19 In American Prisons

As of May 20, 2020, 59 federal prisoners had died from COVID-19 and more than 4,600 have tested positive, though health experts believe the actual number is likely much higher.

The BOP does release such data and, according to the Marshall Project, does not have a clear policy on who qualifies for release and why.

Torres had recently qualified for a reduction of his 220-month prison sentence. That, in addition to the fact that he had already served 10 years of his 18-year sentence begs a question: why wasn’t he released once the coronavirus began to sweep the nation? That would have been in keeping with the BOP’s own recently adopted guidelines. 

In a Bureau of Prison filing on April 22, 2020, the BOP noted that in view of the spread of Covid-19, it was “at this time prioritizing for consideration those inmates who either (1) have served 50% or more of their sentences, or (2) have 18 months or less remaining in their sentences and have served 25% or more of their sentences.”

Torres fell into the latter case, having already served 50% percent of his sentence yet he was not offered home confinement or compassionate release.

Georgetown Law professor Shon Hopwood, an expert on criminal justice reform, said the BOP doesn’t answer questions and keeps shifting policy on who qualifies for release and who gets left behind. 

“The Bureau of Prisons is operating all behind closed doors, and that’s a big part of the problem,” Hopwood said in a recent Marshall Project report.

While very few receive jail sentences for minor marijuana possession, there are currently over 40,000 people serving time in jails and prisons for marijuana offenses.

In its report, “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out that: “More than six million arrests occurred between 2010 and 2018, and Black people are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in every state, including those that have legalized marijuana.”

Steve DeAngelo, founder of the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California and a co-founder of the Last Prisoner Project, produced a worth-watching YouTube video calling on all of us to consider the plight of cannabis prisoners during this pandemic.

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