After 16 years in prison for a fatal drunk-driving crash — 16 years of missed births, graduations, weddings and funerals — Tanya Yelvington hoped to sit down to Christmas dinner at the home of her sister in Hollywood.
During her long incarceration ending in June, Yelvington endured the deaths of her husband and mother, her own bout with breast cancer and a botched double mastectomy, a procedure that became necessary when Florida prison officials ignored her complaints about a lump in her breast. A post-surgical infection nearly killed her.
Her sister, Teresa Telez, had been her lifeline on the outside, battling the prison to get her medical tests and treatment.
But there will be no Hollywood Christmas for Yelvington. The Florida Commission on Offender Review rejected her request. It didn’t give a reason.
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In Florida, men and women released early from prison answer to the panel, whose decisions are sometimes criticized as arbitrary and counterproductive.
Yelvington’s record shows that, since leaving Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, she has complied with the terms of her release, including dictates that she never again drive a car, not drink alcohol, not stay out past 10 p.m. and not leave Volusia County without special permission. An earlier request for permission to visit family at Thanksgiving was approved, and the overnight stay went off without a hitch.
As for Christmas, the commission said no, delivering the news this past Monday after plans had been made for extended family to fly in from all over.
Yelvington, 55, and her relatives wondered if the denial had something to do with her prominent placement in a just-published Miami Herald series on the treatment of inmates at Lowell. In the series, she criticized the Department of Corrections for ignoring her pleas for medical treatment, joining a chorus of complaints about the prison. Molly Kellogg-Schmauch, spokeswoman with the Commission on Offender Review, said that simply is not the case.
She said the commission had no knowledge of Yelvington’s role in the series until it was contacted by the Herald on Monday. She explained that the commission made its decision based on an “independent review” of Yelvington’s request, which was submitted Dec. 7.
The woman whose husband Yelvington was convicted of killing in the crash 17 years ago questioned whether the denial makes sense.
“I don’t think that it’s right,” said Jacquel North, whose husband, John Selby, died in the 1998 drunk-driving accident. “I have remarried; I also learned that life goes on. The court did the right thing, giving her 20 years, but what happens now? Her life needs to go on now, too.”
The decision dismayed Allison DeFoor, a leading voice in Florida’s criminal justice reform movement. The movement has made inroads across the nation, including in several neighboring Southern states, but has made little headway in Florida.
“Let me see if I got this right. The state cuts off this woman’s breasts. Botches the job. The victim’s family says it’s fine for her to go home at Christmas — and it actually would decrease her likelihood of recidivism — and the state says no? This is a powerful example of how broken, cruel and pointless this system has become,” said DeFoor, an Episcopal priest and attorney who is a former judge, Monroe County sheriff and vice chairman of the state Republican Party.
Florida no longer has parole, but inmates can earn gain time, which is awarded for good behavior. Yelvington had enough gain time to be released after 16 years. However, offenders who are sentenced for violent crimes, including DUI manslaughter, are subject to a form of supervision called “conditional release.”
They must adhere to strict conditions set by the panel of three commissioners. Their release can be revoked and the inmate returned to prison if the commission determines a willful and substantial violation of supervision has occurred.
Setting conditions is fine, but placing restrictions on an offender that impede the ability to connect with family goes against the recommendations of nearly every expert, said DeFoor, founding chairman of the Project on Accountable Justice, a think tank based at Florida State University.
Freed inmates who return to a life of crime often have no support on the outside, he said. Family is a key factor, and keeping them away from their loved ones — especially during the holidays — is a recipe for them to fail, he said.
Yelvington’s son was going to drive her the four hours to her sister’s home, where family members had made arrangements to fly in from various locations. She hoped to stay until Jan. 1 before returning to Volusia.
This is a powerful example of how broken, cruel and pointless this system has become.
former judge and Monroe County sheriff
Richard Davison, one of three commissioners, signed the denial on Dec. 14 — one day after a video featuring Yelvington was posted online by the Herald. The video included graphic photographs of Yelvington’s disfigured chest, the result of a badly performed operation at Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville, carried out by a surgeon hired by FDC.
“If you don’t have a family member to fight your battles for you, you will die in the Department of Corrections,” Yelvington said in the video. “They will go to the lengths of misdiagnosing you or letting you die to save the state money.”
Davison, a former deputy secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, checked the “no” box without explanation.
“The commission conducted an independent review of Ms. Yelvington’s entire record, including the November 25-27, 2015, travel request, which had been granted less than two weeks earlier,” Kellogg-Schmauch said.
McKinley Lewis, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the FDC has nothing to do with deciding whether inmates on conditional release can travel. He said the reason Yelvington was not informed until Monday — seven days after the decision was made — had to do with a number of factors, including her probation officer having a court date, followed by a day off.
Neither the governor’s office nor members of the commission responded to requests for comment.
Former probation officers say there is generally no restriction on how many times an inmate can travel, as long as the travel is approved in advance. Decisions, they say, are made based on an inmate’s compliance, and whether he or she is a security risk. The fact that Yelvington stuck to the rules during the November holiday should have been considered a positive factor, they said.
“We are supposed to make an unbiased decision on what’s best for the offender and for public safety,” said Christina Bullins, a former probation officer and supervisor with the Department of Corrections who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the department two years ago, resulting, she says, in her firing. “It doesn’t matter whether she traveled before, as long as the plan that is in place is a secure one that has been verified.”
North, the widow, said that in her view, Yelvington should be monitored to ensure she doesn’t drink and drive again, but added she has forgiven her and believes she should be given a chance to prove herself worthy of freedom.
“As long as they know where she is, why not let her go?” North said.