More than 11,000 people have been released from federal prison in the last couple of years, to ride out the pandemic at home, often with their families and loved ones. But that situation can be precarious.
This week, the Bureau of Prisons told NPR that 442 people who were released during the pandemic have now returned to prison. Only 17 people out of more than 11,000 (0.2%) who were released committed new crimes, mostly drug related, while they were out. More than half, some 230 people, were sent back for alleged alcohol or drug use. Other cases involved technical violations.
Sakira Cook of the racial justice group Color of Change explained what that means.
“It could be as simple as failing to answer the phone when your probation officer calls you. It could be as simple as the ankle monitor giving an incorrect signal about your location,” Cook said.
Kevin Ring advocates for people in prison and their families at the group FAMM, formerly known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
“In a normal circumstance, somebody who violates the terms of their home confinement is sent back to the halfway house or to prison, but the stakes are much lower,” Ring said. “They’re only going back for a month or two.”
But some of the people released from prison under the bipartisan pandemic legislation called the CARES Act have years remaining on their prison terms.
“Is it really worth sending people back for years because they missed a phone call or they had alcohol in their urine?” Ring asked.
Most of the monitoring of people on home confinement is being done by private contractors, said Quinnipiac University School of Law professor Sarah Russell.
“There can be a lot of room for miscommunications and misunderstandings,” Russell said.
Russell said that’s all the more reason to ensure due process rights for people at risk of being sent back: the opportunity to see the evidence against them and to have a hearing before a neutral arbiter.
Last week, one of Russell’s clients won those rights in court. The decision by Judge Omar Williams is the first in the nation to hold that the current process for returning people to federal prison after home confinement is unconstitutional.
Russell said her other clients — moms with young children — are still nervous about having to leave their lives behind unexpectedly.
“My real hope is that this gets addressed at the national level through the Bureau of Prisons and through the Department of Justice,” Russell said. “They have a real opportunity to set clear procedures and criteria.”
More lawsuits from people returned to prison are under way. The Bureau of Prisons said it can’t talk about that pending litigation. But it is considering a new federal rule to make the process more clear.
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