Inmates Sent Home Because of COVID-19 Pandemic May Have to Return to Prison

By Shani Saxon Jun 28, 2021

In January 2021, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a memo agreeing to release thousands of nonviolent, federally incarcerated people into home confinement for the length of the national emergency declaration. Six months later, as the country slowly recovers from the worst of the pandemic, roughly four thousand formerly incarcerated people could find themselves back behind prison walls, even if they adhered to all of the rules and conditions of their home confinement, The New York Times reports. 

The DOJ initially stated that anyone whose prison sentence extended beyond the “pandemic emergency period” would have to go back to prison. Criminal justice advocates, however, are begging President Biden to use his executive power to revoke that rule. Their argument is that the DOJ’s response to the pandemic “offers a glimpse into a different type of punitive system in America, one that relies far less on incarceration,” according to The Times. Advocates want to see people either remain on home confinement, or to have their sentences commuted entirely.

The Times spoke to a woman named Wendy Hechtman, who was released from prison and put on home confinement six months ago. Since then, she has worked hard to reintegrate into society by following all  the rules outlined in the terms of her release. Hechtman, who is serving a 15-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute a form of fentanyl, is now worried that all  her hard work will be for nothing if she’s forced back inside. “If I go to prison for all the time I have left, I won’t have boys anymore. They will be men,” she told The Times. “I have so much to lose. And to gain.”

So far, the Biden administration hasn’t commented on what will happen to people currently released to home confinement, although they appear to be following the rules outlined by the Trump administration. Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement released to The Times that the president was “committed to reducing incarceration and helping people re-enter society.” Bates however, also said any questions related to people on home confinement should refer to the DOJ.

Kristie Breshears, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons, told The Times that the bureau would “have the discretion” to allow people who were close to the end of their sentences to remain on home confinement even after the national emergency declaration was lifted. “For the more difficult cases, where inmates still have years left to serve, this will be an issue only after the pandemic is over,” she told The Times. “The president recently extended the national emergency and the Department of Health and Human Services has said the public health crisis is likely to last for the rest of the year.”

The White House, which revisits the COVID-19 emergency declaration every three months, is scheduled to do so again in July. In the meantime, formerly incarcerated people on home confinement remain in an agonizing state of limbo.