Federal prisoners released under COVID-19 provisions face an uncertain future

About 4,000 federal inmates were released to home confinement last year in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic recedes, they’re living in limbo as they wait to hear whether they’ll have to go back to prison.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress last year, carried a provision to allow more federal prison inmates to be released on home confinement to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. The criteria for release were set by former Attorney General Bill Barr and then-President Donald Trump.

Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, recalled the criteria: “You can’t have any violence in your record. You have to have served at least half your sentence. You cannot have had any disciplinary infractions in the last year, and you have to be the lowest level of risk on the risk assessment score,” Ring said. “Attorney General Barr, who wrote the book on mass incarceration, was not about to send a bunch of people out into the community who he thought were a public safety threat.”

The inmates approved for the early release were then told the rest of their sentence would be served in home confinement, and sent on their way.

“When they left, they were told you’re going to spend the rest of that on home confinement,” said Ring.

But things changed Jan. 15, 2021, when the Justice Department decided that inmates who had been released under the CARES Act must return to prison once the COVID-19 emergency is over.

With the change at the White House five days later, FAMM has been trying to convince President Biden’s administration to allow them to stay at home for the rest of their sentences, as they were originally promised.

“We understand that they’re sympathetic to the plight of these people, but there’s been no movement to actually address it,” said Ring.

“The delay itself is part of the problem,” he added. “Every day these thousands of families wake up not knowing if they’re going to be separated again.”

The Justice Department’s response to this point has been to note that the pandemic is not yet over, so this is not an imminent concern.

“That’s easy to say if you’re not waking up worried about whether you can sign a lease, start a relationship, begin college, or a whole bunch of other things that you would do if you thought you were going to be free for the rest of your life, but aren’t sure if you’re going to be back in prison in three months,” said Ring.

Many would say the prisoners committed a crime, therefore should pay with a full sentence behind bars, but Ring said, “The people who are paying is us.”

He added, “We’re going to pay millions of dollars to keep people in prison who over the course of the past year have proven they don’t need any more time. This [has] been a natural experiment that has showed us that these 4,000 people are home, contributing to their community, paying taxes — and we’re not paying for them to be in prison.”

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Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Michelle Murillo

Michelle Murillo has been a part of the WTOP family since 2014. She started her career in Central Florida before working in radio in New York City and Philadelphia.

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