Inmates released because of COVID face returning to prison

Submitted photo Kendrick Fulton and sister

Kendrick Fulton, 48, is one of about 24,000 federal inmates who have been permitted to serve their sentences outside prison walls after being granted release on home confinement amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Since his release in September 2020, Fulton has gotten a job with Coca-Cola, earned his Commercial Driver’s License, and celebrated his first birthday at home in nearly two decades.

“It’s been great…just being home, having the chance to be re-acclimated to society,” he told the MSR.

While living with his sister in Round Rock, Texas, Fulton has been working to rebuild his life after spending 17 years in prison on nonviolent drug-related charges. He views his release as a second chance.

Now, Fulton and others who’ve begun working or started college outside prison walls face the possibility of being forced to return in the absence of federal action. In recent weeks, pressure has mounted on President Joe Biden to grant clemency to prisoners who were released on home confinement as thousands of inmates grapple with the reality of their precarious futures.

Related Story: COVID-19 running wild in Minnesota prisons

A bipartisan group of criminal justice advocates submitted a letter to Biden on July 19, asking that he use his presidential powers to commute inmates’ sentences. “This is your opportunity to provide second chances to thousands of people who are already safely out of prison, reintegrating back to society, reconnecting with their loved ones, getting jobs, and going back to school,” said the letter from 20 advocacy groups including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and the NAACP.  

Phillip Holmes of the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee considered how inmates’ return to federal prisons would impact their families. “Once again families, husbands generally, are being plucked away… They’re providers. It’s going to create unnecessary hardship on families that have dependent children.”

COVID is pervasive throughout U.S. prisons

A January Justice Department memo issued under the Trump administration prior to Biden’s inauguration clarified that inmates released to home confinement under the CARES Act to curb the spread of the virus would have to return to prison one month after the official state of emergency ends if their sentences extend beyond that period.

According to the COVID Prison Project, which tracks data and policy to monitor the virus and its impacts on the prison system, there have been more than 400,000 cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people, and more than 2,500 have died. 

A Biden legal team concluded in July that the law was correctly interpreted in the Trump-era memo, which applies to about 4,000 inmates. Although the end of the state of emergency is not expected to come this year due to an uptick in COVID cases attributed largely to the spread of the Delta variant, the lives of inmates released under the act are shrouded in uncertainty.

 Fulton, who is set to be released in 2032, said he hasn’t really begun to consider the prospect of returning to prison after 10 months of living at home. “I guess I’m not even really thinking about it,” he said. “I hadn’t even wrapped my mind around it.”

Fulton was sentenced under the 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing guidelines, which were established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 and relate to the amount of crack versus powder cocaine necessary to trigger mandatory minimum prison sentences. Under the sentencing guidelines, possession of five grams of crack cocaine mandates the same minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine, which resulted in significantly disparate outcomes for African Americans.

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the mandatory minimum sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to about 18-to-1. Then in 2018, the First Step Act, which provides retroactive sentence reductions to people imprisoned under the 100-to-1 crack cocaine disparity, was signed into law.

A judge has denied Fulton’s request for a sentence reduction. He appealed the decision in February, and the case is pending.

 After his release, Fulton launched “Life In The Feds,” a website and online community aimed at giving the public an inside look into what serving time via home confinement is like. Fulton’s more than 18,000 followers on Tik Tok have been able to share the special moments that followed his release, including his first walk with his mom in 17 years.

“I’m hoping that people could see maybe this could be the new criminal justice reform,” he said. “This beats being behind the fence. I can’t go and come like I want, but I’m not subject to communal bathrooms, communal showers… This is a peek into [the lives of] people who return home from federal prison.”

No recidivism and no expense

Of the 24,000 prisoners released under the CARES Act, only three have committed new crimes, according to the Bureau of Prisons. About 150 people were returned to prison for violating conditions of their release, including leaving home without authorization.

“If a person has not committed a new crime, what is wrong with letting him continue out his sentence and enjoy his family and be a productive member of society?” Holmes questioned. For decades, home confinement has been floated as a viable alternative to the current overcrowded prison system, especially for nonviolent offenders. The U.S. is the world leader in incarceration and spends $80 billion a year to keep over two million people locked up.

In 2018, Americans paid nearly $38,000 to keep the average federal prisoner behind bars, but as Fulton pointed out, serving a sentence via home confinement is far more cost-effective. “They’re saving $40,000 a year in taxpayer money,” Fulton said. “I’m out here working, I’m out here paying taxes.” 

Holmes also acknowledged the economic upsides to a reformed criminal justice system. “They’re being productive, they’re paying taxes. They’re adding to the tax pool, they’re actually contributing to society. When they go inside now they’re on the dole of the taxpayer so to speak,” he said.

“There has to be some compassion in some of this stuff to make it flow better and work better. We just don’t have that right now.” Biden has promised to refashion the criminal justice system by expanding restorative justice programs and cutting incarceration rates by “more than” half, he told a voter in 2019.

White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates reiterated the administration’s commitment to prison reform amid calls for Biden to grant clemency to those released as the number of people in federal prison continues to grow under his presidency.

“President Biden is committed to reducing incarceration and helping people reenter society. As he has said, too many Americans are incarcerated, and too many are Black and Brown,” Bates said. “His administration is focused on reforming our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy, and give people a chance at a better future.”