Isschar Howard was the face of redemption for the state Department of Correction last year, telling “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker that he had found his purpose helping younger inmates to succeed.
“I didn’t have to die a waste,” Howard told Whitaker about his role as a mentor for the DOC’s T.R.U.E unit. “I tell these guys all the time they give me a purpose to live, they give me something to leave behind.”
Now his sister Debra Martinez is concerned that the agency won’t be able to protect him during the coronavirus pandemic as it blows through the state’s prison system. But she has few avenues to seek his temporary release even though he has an exemplary record of helping others while incarcerated.
“The lack of good medical care within the prisons is not new,” Martinez said. “If it’s substandard at best on a typical day, how can you ensure access to good medical care during this?”
Her struggle to see if prison or state officials will grant her brother some type of clemency or medical furlough during the public health crisis that has killed more than 2,000 state residents since March 1, isn’t unique.
Advocates and family members have been calling for the mass release of medically fragile prisoners and those who are near the end of their sentence or being held on low bonds for weeks as the pandemic impacts the state.
Meanwhile, the number of DOC employees and inmates testing positive for COVID-19 has increased exponentially in the past three weeks to 317 staff and 390 inmates with two inmates dead as of Tuesday. Another 228 inmates have contracted COVID-19 and have recovered and returned to their facility. The same goes for 144 DOC employees.
Howard’s situation does stand out however in that he has managed to turn his life around despite the dire circumstances that played out on a New Haven street corner two decades ago that led to his incarceration.
“What I have to offer is experience in taking the wrong route,” Howard said in a phone interview. “I don’t know what happens when you do it right. I can tell you what it leads to when you take the wrong route. I can give you advice, but you have to decide to follow that advice.”
For the past three years he has mentored young inmates in the specialized program lauded by state officials as a better way of incarceration on “60 Minutes” last year. He attends his nephews’ school conferences by phone to make sure they receive the help they need, his sister said. He’ll frequently donate his commissary money meant to help him buy necessities to charitable cases, she said.
“He’s 100 percent trustworthy,” Martinez said. “They’ve granted him two furloughs to attend funerals and there were no problems.”
But he has few options for release due to his 2002 trial conviction on capital felony murder, weapons and drug charges for crimes authorities say he committed when he was 20-years-old.
The 41-year-old Howard is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole plus 17 years for the murders of two men shot during a fight over drug territory in 2000. Court papers describe a chilling scene with two men shot and left to die on the street. The co-defendant involved in the crimes took a plea deal for a 17-year sentence.
By all accounts, Howard’s imprisonment has been a story of redemption. Howard admitted to Whitaker during the televised segment that he did a good amount of time in solitary confinement during his early years incarcerated due to his behavior. But Martinez would tell him that he could be someone better even if he was spending his life in prison, he said.
He was asked in 2017 to participate in the T.R.U.E unit which houses a select group of incarcerated men ages 18 to 25 at Cheshire Correctional Institute who are paired with “lifers” who act as mentors. The young men receive intensive counseling and learn personal responsibility through incentives.
“They just happened to pick the right guys who were sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Howard said. They’ve gone three-and-a-half years without a fight on the unit, something that is unheard of, he said.
Howard has been an integral part of the program from the start, gaining the respect of staff and younger inmates, according to performance reviews in his DOC file.
He suffers from hypertension and a blood autoimmune disorder, alpha thalassemia, which was revealed during a biopsy three years ago but has never been treated, Martinez said. Both conditions make him more likely to have complications or die if he contracts COVID-19. He didn’t even realize until he saw the application for a medical furlough how serious the blood disorder could be, he said.
Attorneys representing Howard in his bid for a temporary medical furlough told Gov. Ned Lamont in a letter that Martinez is willing to take him in while paying for his electronic and probation monitoring while the pandemic impacts the prisons.
He would return to the prison to serve the rest of his sentence when the prisons are deemed safe again, said Miriam Gohara, Clinical Professor of Law with the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School.
“For someone like Mr. Howard there are pretty few options,” Gohara said. “There are certain people with strong records of rehabilitation that they can look at to be released out into the population, especially those with medical conditions.”
But the DOC denied Howard’s request for a medical furlough Monday.
A spokesperson for Lamont said the governor’s office had no comment. DOC officials did not respond to a request for comment on the denial of the medical furlough or on Howard’s record of work within the T.R.U.E. unit.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles has not discussed the commutation of sentences for months. Due to his conviction, he is not eligible for sentence modification. Howard’s only chance to escape the virus is a temporary furlough that at this point would have to granted by Lamont, his sister said.
Howard’s conviction however, makes it difficult to support even a temporary release, some leaders said.
“It’s complicated by the length of his sentence and what his sentence means,” said state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, Co-Chair of the Judiciary Committee. “It really complicates advocacy for him.”
After trying for weeks to get answers on the DOC’s plan to release inmates or mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prison, Winfield is finally resigned to trying to find out if those who remain incarcerated will be protected.
“It has become, if they aren’t going to be released, how safe will be they be?” Winfield said. “I don’t have an answer to that.”
Howard’s temporary release would be a win-win, Martinez said. Her brother would be safe, she would pay for electronic monitoring and the prison would have more room to provide social distancing, she said.
“He should be treated equally, he should at least have an opportunity to ask,” Martinez said. “They’ve excluded him completely and written him off for re-entry because of his sentence. The law does not afford him any method of release. The person who can do that at this point is the governor.”
Howard admits that dealing with the virus is scary while incarcerated. “I’ve always thought I don’t want to die the same person that I came in,” he said. “I often wonder, have I done enough? I was accused of killing two people, but maybe people could look at well, he also helped to create these programs, maybe he wasn’t all that bad. Now with COVID-19, I’m wondering if I will fall short of that goal.”