NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Ever since Wendy Hechtman was moved to a sober residential facility as part of a mass release of non-violent prisoners six months ago to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Wendy Hechtman has tried to do the right things.
She makes up for lost time with her children, one of whom was only 6 years old when Ms. Hechtman was jailed about three years ago. She goes to weekly drug counseling sessions. She even got a part-time job helping former inmates reintegrate into society.
But now, Ms. Hechtman is among the 4,000 or so federal felons who could soon go back to prison – not because they violated the terms of their domestic detention, but because the United States appears to be through the worst of the pandemic.
In the final days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department issued a memo stating that detainees whose sentences exceeded the “pandemic emergency period” should be returned to prison. But some lawmakers and criminal justice advocates are calling on President Biden to repeal the rule of using his executive powers to keep them in domestic detention or to commute their sentences entirely, arguing that the pandemic may provide insight into a different type of penal system in America offers that is far less based on incarceration.
“If I go to jail all the time I have left, I won’t have any boys. They will be men, ”said Ms. Hechtman, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute some form of fentanyl. “I have so much to lose. And to win. “
Mr Biden has vowed to make overhauling the criminal justice system a crucial part of his presidency, saying his administration could cut prison inmates by more than half and expand programs that offer alternatives to incarceration.
While the White House has yet to announce a decision on house arrest, the government appears to be following the instructions in the Trump-era memo.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Mr Biden, said in a statement that the president was “committed to reducing incarceration and helping people re-enter society,” but referred questions about the future of detention to the Justice Department.
Kristie Breshears, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department, said the office would have “discretion” to allow inmates near the end of their sentences to remain in home custody after the national emergency remain declaration has been repealed.
“For the more difficult cases where the prisoners still have years, this will only be an issue after the end of the pandemic,” she said. “The president recently extended the national emergency and the Department of Health and Human Services has said the public health crisis is likely to persist for the remainder of the year.”
The White House reviews the emergency declaration every three months, leaving the former prisoners in constant limbo. The next appointment is in July.
Stacie Demers, who served nearly half of a 10-year prison sentence for conspiracy to spread marijuana, said she felt like she was “stuck between the beginning and the end, so to speak.” She is currently at her aunt’s home in Albany, N.Y. “I always have one thing in the back of my mind: Do I have to go back? Will I not see my family again? “
An alternative to overcrowded prisons
The United States is recognized as the world leader in incarceration, spending more than $ 80 billion annually two million people behind bars.
For non-violent offenders in particular, domestic detention can be a more humane – and cheaper – alternative to already overcrowded prisons, proponents of the criminal justice system argue.
The United States spent an average of $ 37,500 in fiscal 2018 holding a federal prisoner like Ms. Hechtman. On the other hand, according to a 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office, home housing costs around $ 13,000 a year, with the cost of surveillance equipment and payment from private contractors for surveillance.
Those pushing for a revision of the prison system say the statistics are on their side. The vast majority of the 24,000 federal prisoners released into house arrest because of the coronavirus crisis stuck to the rules. Most of them had only weeks or months left in their sentences and completed them without incident.
Three people had committed new crimes, one of which was violent, Michael Carvajal, director of the Bureau of Prisons, told lawmakers during a Senate hearing in April. About 150 people were returned to prison for other violations, including about two dozen for leaving their homes without a permit.
Kevin Ring, the president of the criminal advocacy group FAMM, formerly known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, questioned the wisdom of cases where people were in jail for technical violations such as online gambling, transferring money to other inmates in the case of a 76-year-old woman in Baltimore attending computer training. “It doesn’t make anyone safer,” he said.
The change in the prison system is one of the few areas where a bipartisan agreement has been reached in Washington. Iowa Republican Senator Charles E. Grassley shared with the Democrats in criticizing the Department of Justice memo released in January.
“Of course, if they can stay where they are, it will save taxpayers a lot of money,” Grassley said at the hearing. “It will also help people who are not prone to relapse and enable inmates to successfully return to society as productive citizens.”
Inmates are typically allowed to serve the last six months or 10 percent of their sentence in domestic custody. The legal memo issued by the Trump administration argued that the roughly 4,000 inmates whose sentences would almost certainly outlast the pandemic would be returned to prison because they did not meet standard home detention eligibility requirements.
Larry Cosme, the national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents probation officers, warned against changing these requirements without proper review.
“It is good to have adequate prison reform and to move with the times, but it has to be carried out sensibly and with a reasonable amount of staff,” said Mr. Cosme. “Make sure the system is working and don’t make anyone fail.”
He also said the releases put a strain on those responsible for monitoring inmates.
Mr. Carvajal, the director of the prison office, said that while the office was helping to reintegrate inmates, other issues were at play.
“The whole point is that at some point they will return to society,” said Carvajal. “We also respect the fact that these sentences were passed by the criminal justice system in court.”
Inimai Chettiar, the federal director of the Justice Action Network, which has consulted with the Biden campaign on criminal measures, said the prison system had been in need of overhaul for years. She said Mr. Biden should not only keep the memo, but also use his executive powers to pardon the inmates.
“I am concerned that your commitment to ensuring the independence of D.O.J. stands in the way of their commitment to racial and criminal justice, ”Ms. Chettiar said of the Biden government. “It’s relatively easy. This means that no bipartisan police law will be passed. It is not a massive new executive measure. It’s just someone who taps something on a piece of paper. “
“You don’t care about me”
For some inmates, being released from home detention meant access to life-saving resources and support systems that they say were scarce within the prison walls.
Jorge Maldonado, 53, who has kidney disease, was released in October because his poor health made him particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. He has served five years of a seven-year prison sentence for fraud and theft, much of it in a federal prison in North Carolina that was badly hit by the virus.
Mr. Maldonado, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, is now being dialysis with a catheter through his abdomen 10 hours a day while waiting for a new kidney, which would be his third kidney transplant.
Because he was at home in Oviedo, Florida, outside of Orlando, he had received the medical care he needed through the Department of Veterans Affairs health system.
But Mr Maldonado has 18 months left on his sentence.
“You will not take care of my health as much as the V.A. does, ”he said of the Bureau of Prisons, which has often been criticized for the quality of its medical care.
Mr Maldonado also asked why he might be forced to return to prison with only one and a half years in prison.
“If someone is doing what they should be doing and has proven that they are not really a threat to this community, to society, what is the problem?” He asked.
Ms. Hechtman has nine years in prison after she was caught making a chemical analogue of fentanyl in 2017.
“I see,” she said when expressing remorse for selling to others in Omaha where she was arrested. “This is not a prison release card, it is an opportunity card.”
In the sober New Haven dormitory, Ms. Hechtman said she didn’t need to worry about exposure to the opioids that she often saw peddling in prison. She starts her day by logging on to her computer in her 3 by 3 meter room and working with former inmates in her part-time job.
To take a walk in the park or even walk 20 meters to take out the trash, she has to file an application with a contractor who works for the government.
When she leaves home, she wears a black monitor on her right ankle and activates an app on her phone that government officials can use to track her.
Ms. Hechtman said she has not missed any of her weekly counseling sessions. She recalled often having to wait weeks to get approval for addiction counseling when she was at the Minimum Safety Facility in Danbury, Connecticut.
“She has hope now and she had none,” said Kathryn Pérusse, the 22-year-old daughter of Ms. Hechtman, who lives in Montreal. “She needed a support system and that’s another thing she couldn’t have in her.”
Ms. Hechtman often points out that being released in domestic custody does not mean absolute freedom. She has still not seen Ms. Pérusse or her three other children, including the 9-year-old son with whom she chats regularly via video chat.
She is not authorized to visit them in Canada. She said her relatives had not yet visited her because of the troublesome quarantine regulations due to the pandemic.
Ms. Hechtman said she hoped to see her outside a prison visiting room for the first time in more than three years before she was sent back.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from New Haven, and Maura Turcotte from Chicago. Hailey Fox Reporting from Washington contributed.