At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons released 24,000 prisoners to serve their sentences in their homes. In yet another example of the ineffectiveness of mass incarceration, the prisoners are thriving. But now they might have to return to prison.
During the final days of the Trump administration, the Department of Justice released a memo requiring everyone to return to prison unless they have less than six months or 10 percent left on their sentences. Advocates and politicians are now calling on President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland to rescind that memo and allow people to remain at home.
The arrangement has, after all, proven successful: Just 21 people were sent back to prison because they allegedly broke the rules and just one person committed a new crime. Nonetheless, the roughly 4,500 prisoners who have time left on their sentences are waiting to find out whether they will have to return to prison after the pandemic.
I spoke to Rufus Rochell, who at 69 years old has served 33 years of a 40-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute and possession of crack cocaine. He was released to home confinement in April and has been staying at his sister’s home outside of Gainesville, Florida. Under the terms of his release, he has to wear an ankle monitor and gets limited time outside the house each week. He’s been using that time to volunteer with children and his church, he said. He also broadcasts daily on Facebook Live, where he speaks about social justice issues.
“Most guys that got out on home confinement are doing everything right,” he told me. “We got individuals taking care of their families, they got a job and they’re not involving themselves in any criminal activity.” When I asked him about the possibility of returning to prison, he told me it revealed a lack of concern with real rehabilitation. “It’s a system that’s designed to incarcerate people even when they are doing right.”
Phyllis Hood, 66, will be able to take off her ankle bracelet in August after serving more than 17 years on drug charges. She was released on home confinement in June last year and told me it likely saved her life. Hood says she contracted a gastral disease while incarcerated, likely from prison food, and probably wouldn’t have been able to effectively manage several of her health problems under prison health care. After her release, she said she started on new medications, acquired hearing aids and is getting treatment for an eye problem. “If I went back to prison I’d probably die in prison,” she said. “It would take them at least two months to get my meds right again. Then it still wouldn’t be right.”
Hood is retired but said she’s heard from women who’ve told her that they’ve secured jobs and had saved up enough for their own homes. “Prison is hard and if anybody that’s been out on home confinement would have to go back that would be heartbreaking,” she said.
Because Biden has extended the COVID national emergency, people still out on home confinement are safe for now. In a statement to The Hill earlier this month, a prisons spokesperson said federal prisons officials will have the “discretion to keep inmates on home confinement after the pandemic if they’re close to the end of their sentences,” with the fate of people with years left to serve still undecided. He added that officials are also focused on expanding eligibility for home confinement, indicating a possible long-term shift in federal policy. Currently, it’s reserved for groups of people vulnerable to COVID-19 who have been convicted of nonviolent crimes and nearing the end of their sentences.
Amy Povah, the founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, an organization that advocates for clemency for nonviolent drug offenders, told me that she’s hoping Biden will simply grant clemency to people on home confinement. Last month, Povah was invited to participate in a Zoom conference with the White House Counsel’s Office, which presides over executive clemency. “When it was my turn to speak, I stressed the need to focus on some categorical clemencies, such as people who are currently on home confinement as a means to nullify the … memo that threatens to return former prisoners to the Bureau of Prisons even though these people were told they would not have to return and pose no threat to society,” she said.
People looking to join the effort can write an email to the Biden administration asking it to rescind the memo and grant clemency.
Regardless of how the Biden administration solves the issue, it’s clear that people are benefiting far more from serving their sentences in their communities than they would behind prison walls. In a country where nearly one in a hundred people are behind bars, this should show everyone how easy it would be to reduce incarceration.