After 16 years of incarceration, 76-year-old Gwen Levi was finally at home reconnecting with friends and family, and taking care of her elderly mother. She was even starting to learn the computer skills necessary to become a COVID contact tracer and re-enter the workforce. While Levi, a mother, grandmother, friend, and cancer survivor, was in class, she missed several calls from her case manager. The prison report deemed her an “escape” and she was sent to jail to await transfer back to federal prison—all because she took a computer class that she believed she had been approved for.
Levi is one of 24,000 people released from prison last year and instructed to finish their sentences on home confinement in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. And though Levi was home, the conditions of confinement were still stringent—she was required to get an approval of an itinerary to go anywhere, wear an ankle monitor and constant check in before leaving and returning.
However, Biden has recently indicated that he will instruct the Department of Justice to return people to prison at the end of the pandemic. And while the pandemic seems nowhere near over, his guidance makes crystal clear that preserving home confinement is not enough. Home confinement is simply an extension of the prison system, one that tethers people to ankle bracelets and constant surveillance. Our people belong at home with their families without conditions. Levi was still incarcerated, unable to walk around the community where she lived or even just to the end of the block. Others will soon not be able to do even that.
After weeks of legal battles, hard-fought advocacy from her family and community, and a public outcry from more than 65,000 Color Of Change members, Levi is home again—this time for good on compassionate release, reducing her sentence to the time while incarcerated. But, the fight is far from over. More than 4,000 people remain on home confinement and are at risk of being sent back to federal prison. Most of those who remain on home confinement are elders or are immunocompromised and are considered at high risk of contracting COVID in prison.
President Biden campaigned on the promise to cut the prison population by half and end racialized mass incarceration. However, if he doesn’t grant clemency for those on home confinement, he’ll be responsible for the fastest expansion of the federal prison population in history. Decades of failed legislation has led to the disproportionate and overwhelming incarceration of Black people, oftentimes on first offenses due to strict mandatory minimums and overly harsh sentencing guidelines.
These are real people: mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, and community members who have reconnected with family and have contributed to their communities. If President Biden refuses to use his clemency powers to act on behalf of this group of low-risk elders and immunocompromised people, then what hope do we have that he will make good on his promises around mass incarceration and criminal justice reform?
The threat of COVID-19 continues to be a serious issue, especially as the delta variant continues to spread rapidly throughout the country. People are now being left in a state of uncertainty as they await reincarceration. Should they enroll in school? Should they let their bosses know? Should they make care plans for their parents or children?
But it doesn’t have to be this way. President Biden can grant clemency or compassionate release to those who remain on home confinement and keep thousands of people safe, healthy, and at home with their families.
Clemency is more than a vital corrective mechanism in a criminal justice system that unfairly and unjustly criminalizes Black communities. For President Biden, granting clemency now can serve as redress for the harmful policies he backed in the past, including his role in architecting the 1994 crime bill that laid the foundation for so many harms against Black people.
Levi is currently reconnecting with her sons and grandsons, helping to take care of her elderly mother, and volunteering at advocacy organizations that provide critical services to formerly incarcerated people. Everyone should have the opportunity to do the same. Color Of Change’s petition demands that President Biden use his clemency powers quickly and decisively to keep all those on home confinement, many who are elders and immunocompromised, home — please join us in this important effort.
Scott Roberts is the senior director of Criminal Justice and Democracy Campaigns at Color Of Change, the largest online racial justice organization in the country. Color Of Change helps people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by over 7 million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America. Visit www.colorofchange.org.