Federal Prisons

Judge Frees 76-Year-Old Woman Sent Back to Federal Prison After Missing a Phone Call from Officials

Controversy highlights punishing responses to mundane mistakes during post-release monitoring of felons.


A judge's mercy has kept the federal Bureau of Prisons from needlessly sending a 76-year-old Baltimore woman back behind bars because she left home to attend a computer class and missed a call from authorities looking for her.

Gwen Levi served 16 years of her federal sentence for dealing heroin before being released last summer to home confinement as part of the Trump administration's effort to reduce the federal prison population to slow the spread of COVID-19. She was one of 4,500 federal prisoners to be sent home.

In late June, the Washington Post reports, Levi attended a class in-person to learn word processing. This trip triggered her ankle monitor. When prison officials called her, she didn't answer the phone, and so this was all treated as an "escape." She was picked up and taken back to jail for transfer back to federal prison for this minor, nonviolent violation.

But Levi was doing the exact sort of thing we want prisoners to do when we release them early—learn skills that will help them become gainfully employed. Dragging her back to prison is a particularly egregious example of how post-release monitoring sometimes leads to people being punished for technical rule violations which are completely disconnected from harmful, illegal behavior. There's been a push by criminal justice activists, supported by some friendly politicians, to reform the system by which people under supervised release get thrown back in jail for "technical violations" of rules that aren't criminal in nature.

On Tuesday, the Post reports, Judge Deborah K. Chasanow of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ordered Levi freed under compassionate release guidelines, writing, "the court concludes it would do little to serve the goals of sentencing to require her to return to full custody." She'll still have to serve five years of parole, though she can request that her parole be suspended after one year.

"Sending her back to prison for going to a computer class was shameful," Kevin Ring, president of justice reform organization FAMM, said in a prepared statement. "She deserves to be home. But this fight is far from over. It's time for the Biden administration to ensure that the 4,000 people on home confinement get to stay home with their families, too."

Ring is referring to the unclear future of all those other federal prisoners sent home last year. The COVID-related early releases were not intended to be permanent; as the Trump administration ended, the Justice Department announced that those prisoners would have to return back to prison after the pandemic has concluded.

It's been a year since these releases, and so far, according to the Post, only 185 of these released prisoners have been returned to federal custody, and only five of them had committed new crimes. Now criminal justice reformers are attempting to pressure the Justice Department under President Joe Biden to rescind the memo and allow these people to remain on monitored release after the pandemic ends.

So far, the administration has been reluctant to commit to this. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice told The New York Times that the Bureau of Prisons would have the discretion to allow released inmates to remain at home if they are close to the end of their sentences.

But does "discretion" actually mean anything given what happened to Levi? If the vast majority of these released inmates have been causing no problems on supervised release, is there any criminal justice purpose served by forcing them back into jail cells that isn't just a punitive response? If the goal of prison is rehabilitation, the appropriate response to those who have been released, but who continue to abide by the law, is to continue this experiment. Perhaps there's even a valuable lesson here about the excessive lengths of some of our federal sentences.