He had been given a ticket out of prison, but Covid-19 killed him before could use it.
Oscar Villarreal was one of 18 paroled inmates who died behind bars last year because the programs he needed to complete before he could be released were slowed or stopped cold by the pandemic, according to "Dead Man Waiting," a new report compiled by University of Texas researchers.
"I knew he had to do the programs, but I didn't expect these programs to be six months or almost a full year," said Vicki Garcia, Villarreal's sister. "We were three months away. To get that call, it was shocking and upsetting."
The report, first obtained by NBC News, reveals that more than 10,700 parole-approved prisoners were marooned in their cells from five to 11 months before they were finally released — more than twice as long as the waiting period before the pandemic.
Villarreal died in September, just a few months shy of his 61st birthday and seven months after he had been approved for parole. He had served eight years for driving while intoxicated and was working to complete an alcohol education program.
His mother, Juanita, 92, is beside herself with grief.
"I was so proud of him," Juanita Villarreal said, fighting back tears. "I thought he was going to come home, because he wrote a letter to me saying, 'I'm coming home soon.'"
A team led by Michele Deitch, director of the Covid, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the University of Texas at Austin, authored the report, which analyzed data about paroled inmates who die while awaiting release.
"People dying simply because they haven't been able to access the program that they needed, that's not fine," Deitch said. The report found that even pre-Covid-19 parole-approved inmates were dying from chronic conditions while working to complete the programs, including cancer and heart disease.
"We need to be preparing people for that eventual release by giving them programs at the front end," Deitch said. "For people who are at the point where they've been approved for parole but they haven't finished the programs or been given opportunities to participate in those programs, they should be able to complete those programs in the community."
The Texas Legislature last month passed a bill, written by Republican Rep. Tan Parker, that would allow for just that.
"I'm all about having prisons that incarcerate those that are violent criminals," Parker said. "But for these nonviolent drug offenses and so forth, it's just much more productive for them and for society and for the taxpayer and for everyone involved to be able to put in place this kind of unique programming."
Brent Denby, 27, has served nine years for possession of a controlled substance and evading arrest. He was paroled in March, but he still has to complete a drug education program before he can be released.
"I know somebody that had made parole and had caught the Covid and they passed away," Denby said. "It was a scary situation."
Covid-19 cases in Texas prisons have fallen dramatically since the height of the pandemic, and only a few dozen cases are active in the prison system, said Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for the state Criminal Justice Department.
Texas has vaccinated about 52 percent of its prison population with at least one dose, according to state data, which is on par with the 55 percent of inmates who have received at least one dose nationwide, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
The challenge now is to break through vaccine hesitancy.
The Texas prison system has tried incentive programs, which it has used before with the flu shot, like giving inmates free items from the commissary, Desel said.
But for some inmates, like Christopher Crain, 32, who is working to complete a drug education program at the Thomas R. Havins Unit in Brownwood, the incentives have the opposite effect.
"They were trying to give people ice cream, M&M's, whatever, to take this flu vaccine. I kind of get, like, suspicious of what they're really trying to do," Crain said. "I feel like they could be using us as lab rats, and that's the main reason why I wouldn't want to get the vaccine in here."
Desel said officials have tried to combat distrust and misinformation by producing educational videos for the inmates about the vaccines with the "lead doctor of the correctional managed health care program answering some of the myths about the vaccine, trying to combat some of that information."
Denby is among the prisoners who have declined to be vaccinated anyway — even though he has survived a case of Covid-19 and fears he could contract it again.
"People dying around me, that's a terrifying situation," he said. "Repeating in your mind, you know, am I going to make it out of this alive?"
Reform of the release programs didn't come soon enough for Oscar Villarreal. Now, his sister has a message for other families who are waiting.
"You should be worried, because my brother, we were expecting him home," Garcia said. "We were making holiday plans, and it was shocking. And it's still hard to believe that my mother, who is 92 years old, could get Covid and survive it and her son didn't."