A last-minute move by officials in the administration of former President Donald Trump could force thousands of people who were released early from federal prison due to the pandemic to go back behind bars when the emergency is over, reports Mother Jones. Before the pandemic, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) typically released prisoners with 6 months or 10 percent of their sentences remaining to home confinement, placing them with their families or in halfway houses. The CARES Act allowed the BOP to expand the group of people eligible for home confinement. The idea was to protect older or medically vulnerable prisoners considered to be a low risk to the public, while making more space for social distancing inside prisons.
Over the next 11 months, more than 21,300 federal prisoners were released to home confinement, at least 7,200 more than would have normally been eligible. An opinion published by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel five days before Trump left office says that once the COVID-19 emergency period ends, or once the attorney general finds it is no longer affecting the federal prison system, the BOP will be “required to recall” released prisoners who have not yet reached the six month or 10 percent threshold of time remaining on their sentences.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, “BOP must plan for an eventuality where it might need to return a significant number of prisoners to correctional facilities,” deputy assistant attorney general Jennifer Mascott wrote in the opinion. Currently, more than 7,700 federal prisoners are under home confinement, and releases are continuing. The threat of being returned to prison after COVID doesn’t just apply to federal prisoners on home confinement.
According to Insha Rahman, the vice president of advocacy and partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice, some states, including Illinois, have used temporary furloughs to decrease prison and jail populations during the pandemic. “There’s a concurrent push at the state level to make sure that these provisions and fixes are in place, so that once the pandemic ends and executive authority is lifted in terms of the emergency measures, we’re not suddenly seeing our jails and prisons fill right back up,” Rahman says.