Criminal Justice

11,000 Federal Inmates Were Sent Home During the Pandemic. Only 17 Were Arrested for New Crimes.

Criminal justice groups say the numbers vindicate their push to keep those people from being sent back to prison.


Of the more than 11,000 federal inmates who were released to home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic, 17 were returned to prison for committing new crimes, according to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

In response to a query from Keri Blakinger, a reporter for The Marshall Project, the Bureau of Prisons said that of the 17, 10 committed drug crimes, while the rest of the charges included smuggling non-citizens, nonviolent domestic disturbance, theft, aggravated assault, and DUI.

Criminal justice groups that worked to keep those people from returning to federal prison say the numbers are vindication for them.

"For those of us who think there's too many people who are serving too long in prison, you couldn't ask for a more affirming number," says Kevin Ring, president of the criminal justice advocacy nonprofit FAMM.

"You hear demagogues a lot of times say that people in federal prison are the worst of the worst, and that's false. Anyone who's visited a federal prison camp knows that there's no fences around them, and that people stay on the honor system," says Ring.

"These numbers show that that's statistically false as well," he adds.

NPR reported that nearly 11,000 federal inmates had been released to home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic. The expanded releases were authorized by the massive pandemic relief bill passed by Congress, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, with the intention of reducing the spread and lethality of COVID-19 in federal prisons.

Those released early to home confinement began to rebuild their lives and reconnect with their families, but there was the question of what would happen to them once the pandemic was over. In the final days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department released a memo finding that once the federal government ended its COVID-19 emergency declaration, all of those former inmates with remaining sentences would have to report back to federal prison.

Groups like FAMM and the American Civil Liberties Union began pressing the Biden administration to reverse that decision. The White House initially declined to do so, instead announcing a clemency initiative that would have only targeted nonviolent drug offenders, leaving thousands of others, like white-collar offenders, to return to prison regardless of their conduct on the outside. However, last December the Justice Department reversed course and issued a new memo finding that the BOP had the discretion to leave them on home confinement for the remainder of their sentences.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.), one of the most pro-incarceration members of the Senate, wrote that the reversal "betrays victims and law-enforcement agencies that trusted the federal government to keep convicted criminals away from the neighborhoods that the offenders once terrorized."

"Federal incarceration keeps notorious criminals far from their communities and thereby limits their capacity to maintain their criminal enterprises and their ability to intimidate victims and witnesses from the inside," Cotton continued.

But the reality for the thousands released on home confinement was uncertainty and fear that they would be ripped away from their families again for inscrutable or petty reasons. For example, a 76-year-old woman on home confinement was nearly sent back to prison for missing a telephone call from prison officials while attending a computer class.

NPR reported that of the more than 400 people on home confinement sent back to prison for technical violations, more than half involved alleged alcohol or drug use. For example, NPR profiled the case of Eva Cardoza and her fiancé Eric Alvarez, who had been struggling with heart problems and colon cancer while also caring for their five children before Cardoza returned from prison:

In June 2021, Alvarez and Cardoza took a 90-minute cab ride into the Bronx, so she could meet with staffers in charge of her supervision. Cardoza, who had tested positive for marijuana, never came out of the building. Alvarez ended up forking out $433 to cover the hours the taxi meter ran as he waited in vain.

Cardoza's return to prison turned the family upside down. She's now been back at Danbury for 14 months. Alvarez said she never got the chance to explain herself or challenge that single positive drug test.

"That's just mind boggling to me," Alvarez said. "Where is the judicial system? Where is the fairness? Where is the 50-50? I don't see it."

NPR reported today that, hours after its story aired, a judge released Cardoza due to "extraordinary circumstances."