Gwen Levi, 76, was one of around 4,500 federal inmates who were released from prison and sent to home confinement as a precautionary health measure during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the mother and grandmother is back behind bars because for a few hours of one day, she was taking a class that caused her to miss phone calls from her supervisors. It’s a story with all the hallmarks of the classic tale of a person with a checkered past trying to do better and a heartless system designed to see them fail.
The Washington Post reports that Levi—who had already served 16 years in prison out of a 24-year sentence for conspiring to sell at least a kilogram of heroin—had moved in with her 94-year-old mother in Baltimore, Md., after she was released last year. By all accounts, she was doing her best to be a productive and law-abiding member of society. She volunteered at prisoner advocacy organizations, she was rebuilding her relationships with her children and grandchildren, and she took a computer word-processing class in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in hopes that it would help her find a good-paying job. Of course, it was that last move that led to her being reincarcerated on June 12 after being out of prison for a year.
According to an incident report from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Levi’s supervisor was unable to contact her for the few hours that she was in class. Levi’s public defender, Sapna Mirchandani, said that there was “no question she was in class,” but as far as the bureau was concerned that wasn’t the case because the incident report listed her failure to answer phone calls while trying to secure some kind of future for herself as an “escape.”
Mirchandani told the post that she was told this was the case because her client “could have been robbing a bank, they’re going to treat her as if she was robbing a bank.”
But Levi wasn’t robbing a bank, she was taking a class.
“I feel like I was attempting to do all the right things,” Levi said in a statement released by Mirchandani. “Breaking rules is not who I am. I tried to explain what happened, and to tell the truth. At no time did I think I wasn’t supposed to go to that class. I apologize to my mother and my family for what this is doing to them.”
Levi isn’t the only person to be sent back to prison after being released amid the pandemic. According to the Post, former President Donald Trump—who often touted himself as some great prison reformer—was celebrated by some for freeing federal inmates to protect them from COVID-19 infection. However, in his final days in office, a Justice Department memo was issued calling for nearly all of the released inmates to return back to prison after the health crisis ended. (This is the part where I remind you that Trump had no problem pardoning federal inmates who were allies of his, soldiers who killed unarmed civilians and a Maryland cop who got off on sicking her police dog on homeless people, while people like Levi had to go back into lockup.)
So now, one can only wonder if officials are looking for any and every excuse to put released inmates back in prison as a way of adhering to the Justice Department’s memo.
From the Post:
Lynn Espejo was sentenced to 45 months for filing false tax returns, wire fraud and money laundering in the Eastern District of Arkansas in 2017. In an interview, she said she was released in May last year, got a job at her church and re-enrolled in graduate school, where she was completing a master’s degree in clinical and mental health counseling. She also writes a blog focused on inmates’ rights and hosts a radio show.
On Jan. 12, according to Bureau of Prisons documents, Espejo was written up for emailing inmates — “[v]iolating a condition of a community program” by “communicating with inmates currently incarcerated in numerous Federal Prisons,” according to the incident report. She was reincarcerated Jan. 12 and released Jan. 27 after a judge allowed her to be returned home because of health issues.
Espejo, who has since completed her degree, said she believes she was sent back to prison as retaliation for her activism. About 153,000 inmates are in the custody of the bureau, a 20-year low.
So now the question is whether or not President Joe Biden’s administration will rescind the Trump-era memo. Families Against Mandatory Minimums President Kevin Ring told the Post that sending people back to prison over minor violations is “counter to human nature,” and that the Biden administration needs to take action now.
“This is exactly what we feared from them delaying resolution of this issue,” Ring said. “Every day is torture. They’re worried about going back to prison. . .Waiting is the hardest part.”
To send a 76-year-old woman who was locked up for a nonviolent crime back to prison for the better part of a decade over a minor and accidental violation is indeed cruel. The system needs to be more humane than this.