Thousands of low-level U.S. inmates released in pandemic could be headed back to prison
By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For Kendrick Fulton, the COVID-19 pandemic opened the door to an unexpected opportunity to rebuild his life in Round Rock, Texas after serving behind bars for selling crack cocaine for 17 years.
When officials tried to contain the spread of the coronavirus in prisons last year, the Justice Department left Fulton and more than 23,800 inmates like him serving their sentences at home.
However, with more and more people being vaccinated, thousands could be sent back to prison to serve the remainder of their sentences, thanks to a neglect from the Justice Department in the final days of former Republican President Donald Trump's administration.
Congressional Democrats and judicial reform advocates have urged President Joe Biden and US Attorney General Merrick Garland to change their minds, but so far the new administration has not acted to repeal the memo.
The memo provides a rigorous legal interpretation of the CARES Act, a 2020 law that gave the attorney general the authority to release low-ranking inmates to home custody during the pandemic.
Once the emergency is lifted, the memo states that the federal prison office "must recall detainees in detention centers" if they do not otherwise qualify to stay at home - a move that will save up to 7,399 BOPs. Could affect inmates currently incarcerated Stay home in detention because they still have time to serve their sentences.
'WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?'
Fulton, 47, said he could have much-needed knee surgery in the past few months and secure a job with an auto glass wholesaler as he faces the prospect of losing the new life he was trying to create for himself.
"Words can't really express how I feel at home 11 years ago. To get a job, to get a bank account," said Fulton. "I've served over 17 years. What more do you want? I should go back 11 years to literally do nothing?"
Criminal justice reform advocacy groups say that if the White House maintains policies it will destroy the lives of thousands of people who are low risk public safety and have already found work, returned to school and tried to reintegrate into society.
"Allowing this memo to stay on the books is in direct contradiction to the government's commitment to criminal justice reform," said Inimai Chettiar, director of Justice Action Network.
"They know how to change Trump policies if they want," added Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "We don't know why this hasn't been changed yet."
A BOP spokesman said the office was aware of the memo but declined to answer any further questions. A union representative who represents law enforcement officials said he believed it was logistically "impossible" to get everyone back to prison.
"We have no staff," said Joe Rojas, the southeast regional vice president of the Council of Prison Locals. "We are already in chaos as it is as an agency."
A Justice Department spokesman declined to answer questions about this policy and instead praised the BOP's success in delivering more than 122,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine to staff and inmates. "BOP continues to evaluate the scope of the home ownership restriction guidelines, which have also helped address concerns of COVID-19," the spokesman added.
Former Attorney General William Barr ordered the BOP in March 2020 to release nonviolent federal inmates if they met certain criteria and later expanded the pool of people who could qualify after declaring that the BOP was under emergency conditions .
Last week, US Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman and 27 other lawmakers, mostly Democrats, sent a letter urging Biden to act so people don't have to go back to prison.
"We urge you to use your executive mercy authority or direct the Justice Department to request compassionate release for those who have demonstrated they are no longer under federal supervision," they wrote.
Miranda McLaurin, 43, a disabled U.S. Army veteran in the Iraq war who was sentenced to five years in prison for a drug offense, said not knowing whether she will be sent back to prison is affecting her mental health.
"It's going to drive you crazy," she said. "I felt like I did before I went to jail without knowing what was going to happen."
In February, she was allowed to return to Ridgeland, Mississippi, from a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, where she was suspected of being infected with the coronavirus after losing her sense of smell for two weeks.
Since then she has got a job in a car factory and was finally able to see her almost two-year-old grandson.
"I always hear them talking about giving people a second chance," she said of the Biden administration. "I came home, I got a job. I work. I have to ride with you every day because I can't buy a car ... But I'll do it."
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)
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