By Sonam Hundal
WASHINGTON, DC – Under the CARES Act, thousands of incarcerated people were placed on home confinement.
However, claims the ACLU, the federal government plans to force these people back into prison once the COVID-19 pandemic calms down, regardless of the formerly incarcerated abiding by the home confinement requirements, reuniting with loved ones, and proving to no longer be a threat to society.
As of Nov. 30, under the Freedom of Information Act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of the District of Columbia are suing the Department of Justice and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). By filing this lawsuit, the ACLU hopes to gather more information on the federal government’s plan.
Incarcerated peoples face one of the highest risks of COVID-19 infection due to the overcrowding of prisons, said the ACLU, adding that data confirms 267 inmates and seven federal guards have died because of the disease thus far.
The senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, Emma Andersson, said, “The BOP told incarcerated people, their families, the American public, and Congress that if people followed the rules on home confinement, they would be allowed to rebuild their lives outside of prison.”
Andersson adds, “Now thousands of those people are in limbo, wondering whether, when, and how they may be needlessly forced back to prison even after proving that they can safely and productively reenter society, but the public
is unable “to know what the scope of this problem is” due to the “BOP’s lack of transparency and failure to produce records in response to the ALCU’s request.”
In response to the dangerously high spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons, Congress allowed incarcerated peoples to be placed on home confinement as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of March 2020, allowing for less overcrowding in prisons and therefore a lower chance of inmates and guards catching the disease. Since then, over 34,000 people have been placed on home confinement by the BOP.
After vigorous evaluation, the BOP determined that those chosen for home confinement would not be a public safety threat as many were elderly or medically vulnerable. Of the 34,000, 7,769 people are still on home confinement.
The director and medical director of the BOP stated in June 2020 that those chosen for home confinement would be on it for “the remainder of their sentences.”
However, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has now decided that those on home confinement will have to serve the remainder of their sentences in prison once the pandemic ends.
The ACLU argues “such an order would disrupt their lives and the lives of their loved ones and would destroy the successful efforts they have made to reintegrate into society.”
Although it has not yet been disclosed how many of the 7,769 still on home confinement may be sent back to prison, the Biden administration has suggested Pres. Biden is considering reducing some people’s sentences so they won’t have to go back to prison.
However, Biden has not granted any petitions yet. According to the ACLU, they have “repeatedly called on President Biden to grant clemency to everyone who is on home confinement under CARES and following the rules.”
Under FOIA, the ACLU asked for the records of the people placed on home confinement, as well as information regarding the OLC memorandum. According to the ACLU, “the government failed to provide the materials by the deadline.”
Arthur Spitzer, the senior counsel at the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said, “Information about BOP’s plans is urgently needed by thousands of people whose lives will be directly affected. This is exactly why we have a Freedom of Information Act—so the people can know what their government is up to. The court should order BOP to honor the ACLU’s requests.”
The lawsuit filed by the ACLU “asks the court to enforce the law against the Justice Department and the BOP and order them to immediately produce the requested records,” according to the ACLU.