David, 28, was counting the days until January 6, 2012, when his prison sentence would end and he would be released on parole. He had earned his GED diploma inside and lined up some job options in construction and landscaping around Albuquerque. But the date came and went, and still the state kept him locked up.

The problem was housing. There was only one halfway house in the state that would take an inmate like David — a convicted sex offender — and it had a long waiting list. If he wanted to get a bed there anytime soon, David would have to buy his freedom — in cash.

He was lucky – he and his sister were able to come up with the money. A $600 rent payment jumped him to the front of the line.

“I felt that I was being treated unfair,” he said. “I’d already fulfilled my obligation of my sentence. Why were they giving me such a hard time?”

David isn’t the only inmate in New Mexico forced to choose between staying behind bars or paying to parole more quickly. Two other men told Searchlight New Mexico that between 2017 and 2018, they paid $1,200 to get into La Pasada, a halfway house in Albuquerque. Several inmates at the Otero County Prison Facility, which houses many sex offenders, said they, too, were aware of the pay-to-play system.

“It’s outrageous,” said Matthew Coyte, an Albuquerque civil rights lawyer. “Making money the determination of whether you get released goes contrary to all the principles behind a just criminal justice system.”

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