As Federal Home Confinement Policy Nears Potential End, South Florida Inmates Face Uncertainty
The federal CARES Act was signed into law in March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill provided fast economic relief to families, workers, small businesses and industries.
It also implemented a variety of programs to address issues related to the onset of the pandemic. Among these programs was the extended home confinement program under the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
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The act gave the director of the BOP, the authority to send inmates to home confinement at any time. The conditions set by the legislation were: the national emergency declared because of COVID-19 had to be in effect and the attorney general had to determine that COVID-19 was materially affecting BOP operations.
Then-Attorney General William Barr made that determination on March 26, 2020, and then issued a memo to the BOP requesting that it review inmates who might qualify for extended home confinement. To be considered for the program, the inmates had to score very low on their risk assessment tool which meant having no violence in their record anywhere, no disciplinary infractions in the last year and being at risk of COVID-19, according to the CDC guidelines. The inmates also had to have completed 50% of their sentences to qualify.
Since March of last year, some 25,496 inmates have been placed in home confinement, including those who have already completed their sentences.
But on Jan. 15, just a few days before the Trump administration left, the office of legal counsel in the Department of Justice issued a memo saying that the CARES Act requires inmates who got extended home confinement to go back to prison once the pandemic emergency ended.
A nonprofit called Families Against Mandatory Minimums — advocates for prison reform. Kevin Ring is president of FAMM and says the program offers an opportunity to address the problem of overcrowded prisons.
"I think this has been a natural experiment that showed us that we have thousands of people in prison who don't need to be there. You can’t have a better example than this group of the lowest of low-risk offenders who are let out for six months, some a year, haven’t reoffended and successfully reintegrated into their communities and are doing well,” Ring said.
Alina Feas is one of the inmates sent home last May. In 2013, Feas was charged with conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud in the Southern District of Florida. She was sentenced to 135 months in prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay restitution for the rest of her life. By the time she was sent home, she had served seven years of her sentence.
“I am not violent. I am a first-time offender, I have never had any problems with the law prior to this. I am not a risk to society. I am doing what I am supposed to do. I think we deserve to stay home. We deserve a second chance and we have already shown that we are not a problem being home,” Feas said.
Feas, like others, wears an ankle monitor and explains what it’s like to be in home confinement.
“We receive random calls three to four times a day. Now they are giving us passes to go to the grocery store once a month for three hours and to doctors’ appointments for three hours. We have to call them when we leave home and then we have to call them when we get to the place. We have to call them again when we are leaving the place and again when we get home. We are being supervised,” she said.
Feas, 61, suffers from asthma, COPD, emphysema and Legionnaires' disease. While Feas is dealing with her health issues, other inmates who have been released are back home trying to get their lives back on track.
“That’s the saddest part and why sending them back would be so cruel. These people have done everything society would have wanted them to do. They got jobs, they reconnected with their families. We've talked to people who have started college or returned to college," Ring said.
WLRN asked the Department of Justice about the possibility of these inmates having to return to prison and the department issued a statement saying that the BOP will have discretion to keep inmates in home confinement after the pandemic if they’re close to the end of their sentences.
The BOP also said it is focused on expanding the criteria for home confinement and taking steps to ensure individualized review of more inmates who might be transferred.