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Amid COVID-19 threat, inmates and families confused by federal guidance on home confinement release

Prison in the time of coronavirus

Updated guidance from the Bureau of Prisons this week has left inmates and their families confused about the standards they must meet in order to qualify for release to home confinement, amid fears about the spread of COVID-19 among the prison population.

Leslie Lewis, sentenced to 24 months for a white-collar offense, is a first-time offender serving time at Alderson FPC, a women's camp in West Virginia. She learned she had been selected for release to home confinement and filled out her paperwork on April 15 and called her husband of 21 years, John, to share the good news. But by Monday their dream had been taken away from them.

"On Monday first thing in the morning, Leslie calls me, bawling. I know my wife enough to know she was shaking," John told CBS News. "She said they told her that she had been denied because of the 50% rule now, and they didn't give an explanation." 

The original instruction came on March 26, when Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to prioritize the use of home confinement for at-risk inmates as a means of curbing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Many inmates will be safer in BOP facilities where the population is controlled and there is ready access to doctors and medical care. But for some inmates, home confinement might be more effective in protecting their health," Barr said in the memo, where he listed qualifying variables like the inmate's age, underlying conditions, and the crime for which they were convicted.

Later, on April 3, Barr amended his order, asking the Bureau of Prisons to prioritize releasing inmates at some of the hardest-hit facilities, the federal correctional institutions in Oakdale, Louisiana; Danbury, Connecticut; and Elkton, Ohio. 

Up to this point, the only offenders disqualified from Barr's directive were sex offenders or those who had committed violent crimes. There was never any specific mention of inmates who had already served at least half their sentence. 

"This has been a total disaster and just ripping people's hearts out for no reason, just because of miscommunication between the DOJ and BOP," Kevin Ring, the president of Families against Mandatory Minimums, told CBS News. "The only way to fix this fully now is to let the people out who had been promised release."

On Wednesday the Bureau sent updated guidance indicating that they are prioritizing inmates "who only have a relatively short amount of time remaining on these sentences."

In a court filing made on Thursday in the Southern District of New York, Miami Federal Correctional Institution Associate Warden Jennifer Broton confirmed that the BOP is using its own discretion when identifying which inmates in the federal system can be released to home confinement, according to the attorney general's March 26th directive.  

"BOP is at this time prioritizing for consideration those inmates who either (1) have served 50% or more of their sentences, or (2) have 18 months or less remaining in their sentences and have served 25% or more of their sentences."

The filing was made in the case of Lewis Stahl, the owner of a medical technology company that had been sentenced to 30 months in prison last year after pleading guilty to tax evasion. Stahl had appealed to the court to be released to home confinement but BOP says that inmates do not have to apply for the placement. 

As for Leslie Lewis, she still has not been granted the release she was originally promised. "Somebody ripped away her dreams, it is a crime what they've done," her husband John said through tears. "My wife is the glue to this family... all I got to hear is her crying." 

By Thursday, the Bureau of Prisons reported it had placed 1,501 inmates into home confinement, and 24 federal inmates have died from the coronavirus. BOP did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

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