The Atlantic

Awakening to a Mass-Supervision Crisis

Paroled from prison, Kelly Savage entered a world that could feel as restrictive as the one she left.
Source: Jacob Myrick

Updated at 12:18 p.m. ET on December 30, 2019.

On a sunny November morning in 2018, Kelly Savage rode in a van to the public parking lot of the Central California Women’s Facility, the state prison from which she had just been released. She was clutching her possessions—pictures of her son and daughter, letters from family and friends, $200, and the various knickknacks she had acquired during 23 years of imprisonment. Christy Harper, Savage’s pro bono attorney, and Colby Lenz, a friend and an advocate for the rights of women in prison, had been waiting for her for several hours in the Central Valley sun. “Let’s go!” Savage demanded. She couldn’t help but feel that the prison was about to realize its mistake and take her back in.

In 1998, Kelly and her husband at the time, Mark Savage, were convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Savage’s 3-year-old son (and Mark’s stepson), Justin, after the doctor who conducted the autopsy concluded that he died of blunt-force trauma, with emaciation and dehydration contributing to his death.

At trial, witnesses had testified of abuse—including violence by Mark toward Kelly and Justin, whom the prosecution argued Kelly hadn’t kept safe. Mark and Kelly were both sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. (The couple has since divorced. Mark didn’t respond to a request for comment mailed to the prison where he is incarcerated.) But more than a decade later, amid a broad reconsideration of the criminalization of survivors of abuse, Savage asked for her sentence to be commuted. She argued, in part, that Mark alone had killed her son and that expert testimony wasn’t presented that could explain how the abuse she experienced had made it difficult for her to leave Mark and protect Justin. In December 2017, then Governor Jerry Brown commuted her sentence, which allowed her to ask the parole board for release. Now, at the age of 46, she was out on parole.  

Just outside of the prison grounds, Savage and her friends stopped to conduct a small roadside service to honor Justin, for whom she hadn’t performed a proper memorial. Dressed in a white top and gray sweats, Savage held a moment of prayer and released three balloons, one for each year of her son’s life. She wanted her friends inside to see that she was free and honoring Justin in the way she had always dreamed of. Then Savage’s friends drove her to meet some of her relatives for breakfast at a small country diner. Noticeably absent was her and Mark’s 26-year-old daughter, who was four at the time of Savage’s conviction. After her parents had been imprisoned, Savage’s daughter had gone to live with Mark’s mother and stepfather. Savage had a strained relationship with her. She hoped to rebuild it now that she was out. But her daughter wasn’t there.

Others had shown up, however, including her stepmother, her older brother, Patrick, and a younger half sister, Angel. Savage hugged Patrick, joked around with Angel, and danced with her stepmother in the restaurant bathroom. “I’m trying to be normal now,” she said.

The family reunion was brief. A few days before Savage’s release from prison, officials had given her papers entitled “Guidelines for Parole.” According to the guidelines, Savage was required to report to her parole officer within one working day of her release. The parole board also mandated 12 months of transitional housing,

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