In response to the coronavirus pandemic, some jails, prisons and halfway houses have slowly started releasing incarcerated people into home confinement so they can protect themselves and mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus in crowded detention facilities.
Releasing people from custody is one of the only ways to save prisoners’ lives. But the criminal justice system has built in so many obstacles to getting out of custody that even people who have been approved for home confinement are ending up trapped inside COVID-19-infested jails and prisons because they don’t have money to pay for their release.
Attorney General William Barr has directed the Bureau of Prisons to expand the use of home confinement for some elderly and at-risk people who are incarcerated, and several state and local officials have announced their own efforts to depopulate crowded jails and prisons. Eligibility requirements for home confinement in most areas are still very narrow and exclude most people. But even those who qualify for home release have wound up stuck in custody because of various conditions of their release that have no bearing on public safety and disproportionately impact people experiencing poverty.
It is nearly impossible for incarcerated people to earn a meaningful income. But in order to get out, some people are being required to first secure stable housing, pay for ankle monitors that cost hundreds of dollars per month, and equip their future homes with a landline telephone. These conditions of release are burdensome for most prisoners under regular circumstances — but during a pandemic, these requirements are life-threatening.
When You’re Not Allowed To Live In The Only Housing Available
Being released to home confinement presents an immediate problem for many low-income prisoners: They may not have a home. And the criminal justice system often restricts what can be considered an acceptable place to stay while on temporary release.
In Las Vegas, Debbie Sutton, who is pregnant with twins, was imprisoned at the Clark County Detention Center for nearly two months after she was approved for home confinement — in part because authorities would not allow her to move into a weekly motel, the only housing available to her at the time. There are several confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the jail and there was high turnover in her jail cell, Sutton said. Every time she got a new cellmate, she worried about being exposed to the coronavirus and potentially endangering her unborn children.
When Sutton’s boyfriend, David Kessler, found out she was eligible to be released into home confinement, he scrambled to find them a place to stay. Out of work, he had been living in Sutton’s mother’s car, he said. He saved his unemployment checks and paid for a month upfront at a weekly motel, in hopes of showing that Sutton had a place waiting for her. By the time he learned Sutton could not move into a weekly motel, he had already paid for the entire month and couldn’t get the money back.
Certain “classifications” of inmates are allowed to stay in a weekly motel under home confinement, Larry Hadfield, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, told HuffPost. Hadfield did not respond to a request to specify who would not be eligible.
These conditions of release are burdensome for most prisoners under regular circumstances — but during a pandemic, these requirements are life-threatening.
Weekly motels are commonly used by people who can’t afford to pay for a security deposit and first and last month’s rent on an apartment upfront and for people who can’t get approval to live elsewhere because of a criminal record or past eviction.
“Weeklies are not affordable housing. But for a lot of people, that’s their only option,” said Leslie Turner, a decarceration organizer at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Action Fund who helped get Sutton out of jail.
Having already paid for a room that his girlfriend wasn’t allowed to live in, Kessler set out, in the middle of a pandemic, to find an affordable apartment that would accept an accused criminal wearing an ankle monitor as a tenant. During the housing search, Sutton learned she had a bench warrant for a $250 ticket for driving without a license or proof of insurance. She missed her court appearance, which was scheduled while she was in jail, Turner said. The unpaid $250 ticket turned into a $1,800 bond, which had to be paid in person before Sutton could get out.
Kessler couldn’t afford the bail, so Turner drove to the courthouse — 82 miles each way — to pay with money raised by her organization. Sutton eventually got out, but only after weeks of needless potential exposure to the coronavirus in jail.
Pay For Your Ankle Monitor ― Or Stay In Jail
In New Orleans, a pretrial defendant who has been cleared for home release is still stuck in jail because he can’t afford the fees associated with the ankle monitor he is required to wear as a condition of his release.
Criminal justice reform advocate Montrell Carmouche paid the man’s bond more than three weeks ago with money from a bail fund in hopes of getting him out of the Orleans Parish Jail, where at least 88 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. But Alternative to Incarceration (A2i), the private ankle monitor company he is required to use, charges up to $180 per month for use of its monitors, in addition to an activation fee. The initial fee is typically $230, Carmouche said in an interview.
New Orleans is one of several places where the financial burden of paying ankle monitor fees falls on the defendant, not the government. Matt Dennis, the head of A2i, is also a bail bonds agent who has compared cash bail reform to “the tactic of Hitlers.” Dennis expanded into the ankle monitoring business, he told the Guardian in 2016, as a way of making money off of the decarceration movement.
In 2018, the watchdog group Court Watch NOLA found that executives at another private ankle monitor company called ETOH donated more than $8,000 to a New Orleans judge who steered defendants toward ETOH’s devices.
Defense lawyers and criminal justice reform advocates say they’ve noticed a slight uptick in judges requiring defendants to wear ankle monitors as a condition of pretrial release — in “exchange” for reducing bail so that defendants who do not pose a safety threat can get out of custody and safely self-isolate. But the expensive ankle monitor fees exacerbate the problems within the criminal justice system that already ties freedom to an individual’s ability to pay for it.
“I have no income, there’s no way I can come up with the money,” said one defendant in New Orleans who was released after Carmouche posted her bail and paid the activation fee for the device. The woman, who requested anonymity out of fear of jeopardizing her ongoing case, doesn’t know how she’s going to pay the monthly fees. She hasn’t been able to find work during the pandemic and has struggled to pay for food. “I’m not trying to go back to jail because it’s not safe. I don’t know what else to do,” she said.
Outdated Technological Requirements
The coronavirus has also prompted authorities to start releasing people from halfway houses — facilities for people nearing the end of their sentences. As in jails and prisons, it is nearly impossible to practice social distancing in halfway houses. Most residents share a room with multiple other people and eat in common spaces. Halfway houses can be even more dangerous than jails and prisons in terms of COVID-19 exposure because residents leave and reenter frequently to go to work.
The public safety argument for continuing to detain people at halfway houses during a pandemic is particularly weak. The people who are living in halfway houses are not considered dangerous and have already been granted the freedom to get jobs and visit family.
Hope Village, a halfway house in Washington, D.C., was the target of a class-action lawsuit brought last month by two people formerly detained there who alleged that the facility’s disregard of social distancing guidelines and lack of on-site medical care put residents at high risk of contracting COVID-19. The federal Bureau of Prisons, which oversees Hope Village, “refused to exercise [its] discretion to provide early release and significantly reduce the population in the facility,” the plaintiffs alleged. Hope Village announced last month plans to begin “winding down” operations.
Even in cases where individuals have been granted release from Hope Village, the process has been slow, confusing and predicated on conditions that can be difficult to satisfy with limited resources.
When Carissa Cline found out she was eligible for home confinement, she got to work finding a place to stay. But one of several obstacles delaying her freedom to safely self-isolate was getting a landline set up at her next home. She already had a GPS-enabled cell phone and would eventually be required to get an ankle monitor — but she was also required to have a landline that she could pick up to prove she was home.
To expedite the process, her lawyer paid for the phone and the installation. But since she was still detained at Hope Village, Cline had to find someone else to wait at the home and oversee installation. After the phone was installed, Hope Village called Verizon and verified that it had been set up, she said in an interview. The day before her release, a Hope Village staffer called the landline to make sure it was ringing. But because Cline wasn’t yet living there, the phone had been set up to go straight to voicemail — which nearly further delayed her release.
Throughout the phone ordeal, Cline got bounced around between the BOP, Hope Village staff, and the probation office — none of whom seemed to be able to explain what she was required to do to get out, she said. Her court case was based in Maryland, but because she was living in D.C., her probation officer had to get reassigned, which caused yet another delay. The day she was supposed to leave, she found out she was required to give her probation officer 24 hours notice in advance of leaving. But she didn’t get the piece of paper her probation officer sent to Hope Village informing her of this requirement until the day she was set to leave. She ended up staying another day.
Altogether, Cline wasn’t allowed to leave until nine days after she first found a place to move in to.
Under regular circumstances, these delays would be frustrating. But because of the pandemic, every additional day at Hope Village meant another chance for Cline to contract the coronavirus from one of the hundreds of people she lived with.
Earlier this month, while Cline was still at Hope Village, two residents died — including one who was quarantined in the basement of the facility. BOP denies that either of the deaths was related to COVID-19. Asked whether either of the two individuals had been tested for the coronavirus or whether an autopsy ruled out the virus as a cause of death, BOP declined to comment.