For Kendrick Fulton, the Covid-19 pandemic has opened the door to an unexpected opportunity to rebuild his life in Round Rock, Texas, after spending 17 years behind bars, convicted of selling crack cocaine.
Authorities struggled to contain the spread of the coronavirus in prisons last year, and the Justice Department let Fulton and 23,800 other inmates serve their sentences at home.
With the increase in the number of people vaccinated, however, thousands of them could be returned to prison to serve the remainder of their sentences, thanks to a low-profile legal opinion issued by the department in the last days of the government. former republican. President Donald Trump.
Democratic congressmen and supporters of judicial reform have called on Joe Biden and Justice Secretary Merrick Garland to revoke the opinion, but so far the new government has taken no action in this direction.
The document presents a strict legal interpretation of the Cares Act, enacted last year to help those economically affected by the coronavirus in the United States, which gave the Secretary of Justice the power to place low-risk inmates under house arrest during the pandemic.
When the emergency is over, the memo says, the Federal Department of Prisons (BOP) “must send inmates home to penal institutions” if they do not qualify to stay at home.
The measure could affect up to 7,399 inmates who are currently detained at home because they have not yet served their sentence.
‘What do you want more?’
That leaves Fulton, 47 – who said he may have had urgent knee surgery and found a job with an auto parts distributor in recent months – in light of the prospect of losing the new life he had. tried to create.
“Words can’t really express how I feel about being home 11 years ago. Find a job, have a bank account, ”Fulton said. “I was already 17. What else do you want? Do I go back 11 years and do nothing?”
Groups defending criminal justice reform claim that if the White House keeps the policy as it is, it will destroy the lives of thousands of people who pose little risk to public safety and have already found jobs, are returned to school and try to reintegrate into society.
“Allowing this memorandum to remain in force is in direct contradiction to the government’s commitment to criminal justice reform,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Judicial Action Network.
“They know how to change Trump’s policies if they want to,” added Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minima. “We don’t know why it hasn’t been changed yet.”
A spokesperson for the prison department said the agency was aware of the memorandum, but declined to answer further questions. A union leader who represents prison officials said sending everyone back to prison would be logistically “impossible”.
“We have no staff,” said Joe Rojas, Southeast Regional Vice President of the Prison Staff Council. “We are already in chaos as it is.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to answer questions about the policy, preferring to praise the success of the correctional agency in providing more than 122,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine to officials and inmates.
“The BOP continues to assess the scope of national containment policies, which have also helped address concerns about Covid-19,” the spokesperson added.
Former Justice Secretary William Barr ordered in March 2020 that the BOP release non-violent federal inmates for house arrest if they met certain criteria, then expanded the pool of people who qualified, saying the BOP was doing in the face of emergency conditions.
Last week, Democratic MK Bonnie Watson Coleman and 27 other lawmakers, mostly Democrats, sent a letter to Biden asking for his action so that inmates do not have to return to jail.
“We ask you to use your executive pardon authority or ask the Justice Department to seek the compassionate release of those who have demonstrated that they no longer need to be under federal supervision,” wrote members of Congress.
Miranda McLaurin, 43, a veteran of the Iraq War who suffers from a disability and was sentenced to five years for a drug-related offense, said the fact that she did not know if she would be at being arrested again was causing her mental health problems.
“It’s getting crazy,” he says. “I feel like I was before I went to jail, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
In February, she was able to travel to her home in Ridgeland, Mississippi, leaving federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, where she suspects she was infected with the coronavirus because she had spent two weeks odorless.
She has since found a job in an auto factory and finally met her almost two-year-old grandson.
“I always hear them talk about giving people a second chance,” said McLaurin of the Biden government. “I came home, I have a job, I work. I have to take a drive every day because I can’t buy a car, but I do.”