1st federal inmate to die of coronavirus wrote heartbreaking letter to judge

Image: Patrick Jones (Courtesy of the Jones Family)

Patrick Jones was arrested in 2007 after police officers found 19 grams of crack and 21 grams of powder cocaine inside the apartment he shared with his wife in Temple, Texas. His wife testified against him and was spared a prison sentence.

Jones wasn’t so fortunate. He was ordered to spend 27 years behind bars, in part because he lived within 1,000 feet of a junior college and already had a long rap sheet, mostly burglaries that he committed when he was a teenager living on the streets.

He was now writing the judge in the hope of receiving a sentence reduction through the newly signed First Step Act, which offered relief to some inmates convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.

“My child having his own experience of raising his own child would validate my life experience and give meaning to my existence in this world, because 83582-180 has no meaning,” he wrote, referring to his federal inmate number.

“It is just a number to be forgotten in time. But Mr. Patrick Estell Jones is a very good person. Caring, hard working, free and clean of drugs and a lot smarter now, with a balanced outlook on life.”

The judge denied the request on Feb. 26. Twenty-two days later, Patrick Estell Jones was dead, the first federal inmate to die of the coronavirus disease.

He had caught COVID-19 at the prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, a penitentiary one which happens to be dealing with the deadliest outbreak of any of the 122 federal facilities.

“He spent the last 12 years contesting a sentence that ultimately killed him,” said Alison Looman, a New York-based lawyer who had represented Jones in an earlier bid for clemency. “Ironically, it seems it is his death that might finally bring his case some attention.”

At his sentencing, Jones was held accountable for 425 grams of crack — 22 times the amount that was in his apartment — based on the testimony from his wife that they sold a half-ounce every other day from Thanksgiving 2006 until they were arrested in January 2007.

The government also used several other factors to enhance Jones’ sentencing guidelines: his apartment’s proximity to Temple College, his role as an “organizer” of criminal activity for enlisting Whitlock to deliver the drugs, his decision to fight the charges at trial and his offenses when he was 17 and 21.

In the case of his previous arrests, the government treated each charge as a separate sentence, which had the effect of further driving up his sentencing guidelines.

Jones was sentenced to the minimum term under the guidelines, but it was still 30 years. His sentence was later reduced to 27 years after the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended the crack guidelines to reduce the disparity between treatment of powder and crack cocaine.

Jones’ younger sister, Debra Canady, recalled being stunned by the severity of his sentence. “My brother made some bad decisions in life, but that doesn’t make him a bad person,” she told NBC News.

In the years after his sentencing, she remained in close touch with her brother, who wrote frequently, she said, asking for updates on the youngest of his three sons, Kyrell.

Jones filed a bid for clemency in October 2016, pointing to court rulings and changes in sentencing guidelines that would have directly affected his case. Jones’ lawyers argued that had he been sentenced then, he likely would have gotten a term at least 10 years shorter.

“With good time credit,” the petition said, “Mr. Jones would have already served his entire sentence.”

The petition noted that he had no history of violence or ties to gangs, had spent his childhood “with no permanent home” and was a model inmate who worked his way up to head baker — “a profession he hopes to pursue upon his release.”

In January 2017, his lawyers received word from the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney: The petition was denied.

Looman recalled that when she delivered the news to Jones, he immediately expressed concern about her and wondered aloud whether she might lose her job as a result.

“It is a telling example of what a kind and compassionate person Patrick is,” Looman later wrote to his judge.

The First Step Act, signed by President Donald Trump in December 2018, offered Jones a glimmer of hope.

In his motion for a sentence reduction under the law, Jones’ lawyers said shaving years off his prison term would “support the mandate from Congress and President Trump to reduce unnecessarily lengthy sentences for defendants like Mr. Jones.”

Prosecutors took a starkly different position, emphasizing his previous convictions and his “leadership role” in his “‘crack’ distribution enterprise.”

“Jones was not a small time crack dealer whose sentence far outweighed the scope of his criminal activity,” prosecutors said in court papers.

The judge, in a ruling filed in February, sided with the government.

“Jones is a career offender with multiple prior offenses and a history of recidivating each time he is placed on parole,” Albright said in his order.

“Though the bulk of Jones’s offenses were committed at age 17, Jones displayed his continuing criminal tendencies by committing offenses each time he was released from custody.”

The deadly illness was sweeping across the U.S., and there were escalating concerns of outbreaks inside detention facilities.

“I am doing well as fare [sic] as coronavirus goes and staying safe and healthy,” Jones wrote March 14, five days before he would complain to Oakdale staffers about a persistent cough, according to federal prison officials.

He went on to say in his message to Looman that he had found out the judge ruled against him, which was news even to Looman, and he revealed why it had taken him so long to get word: His lawyer had left the public defender’s office two months earlier.

“I talked to the head person and he said it was on him that I was not contacted and that he was going to get his people on top of the appeal,” Jones wrote.

“Anyway, enough about my problems. Are you likening the work from home thing?”

Looman replied a few days later.

She never heard back.

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