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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Justice Department has released more than 30,000 non-violent inmates to home confinement to try to limit the virus' spread in prison. But, as John Yang reports for our ongoing "Searching for Justice" series, some of these men and women could be forced to return to prison once the pandemic ends.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Justice Department has released more than 30,000 nonviolent inmates to home confinement to try to limit the virus' spread in prison.
But, as John Yang reports, some of these men and women could be forced to return to prison once the pandemic ends.
It is part of our ongoing series Searching For Justice.
In Micanopy, Florida, Rufus Rochelle has had his own room for the first time in more than three decades.
Rufus Rochelle, Home Confinement Inmate:
I always was optimistic that freedom was going to come, but I didn't realize it would be 32 years, almost 32 years, before it came.
He was in prison serving a 40-year sentence for a 1988 conviction for conspiracy to sell crack cocaine and obstruction of justice. But that changed on April 24, 2020, when he was moved to home confinement.
It was one of the best days of my life. And it was a sad day, too, because I was leaving so many others behind.
Rochelle, now almost 70, was released under a provision of the CARES Act, which made more prisoners eligible for home detention, in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons.
Studies in the early months of the pandemic found federal and state inmates were more than five times as likely than the general public to contract COVID-19. The virus has claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 inmates.
There's no way that you could practice social distancing when you got two men, and sometimes three men, inside of a cell, a room, stacked on top of one another.
But almost a year-and-a-half after his release, Rochelle and about 4,000 others like him face the possibility of having to return to prison once the pandemic ends.
That's because a Trump era Justice Department legal opinion concluded that these men and women would have to finish their remaining sentences in prison once the pandemic recedes. Biden administration officials agreed with that reading of the law.
Alison Guernsey, University of Iowa College of Law: I know of no instance in modern history where we have re-incarcerated such a large number of people after they have been effectively released from a custodial setting.
Alison Guernsey runs the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Iowa Law School. She represents some inmates who were released to home confinement.
I'm telling my clients, look, you need to be prepared for this. Here are the options. Here are things that could happen. But if we don't succeed, you may end up back in prison.
In a statement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said it will have discretion to keep inmates on home confinement after the pandemic if they're close to the end of their sentences.
And administration officials say President Biden is considering clemency requests for nonviolent drug offenders who have less than four years to serve.
That could include Rochelle. Because of good behavior, he's set to be released next July. For now, he says he still feels like very much a prisoner.
Yes, this is Rufus Rochelle. I wanted to let you know we are getting ready to go to the church center.
May sure you will be back by 2:30.
I mean 2:30, OK. Mm-hmm.
He wears an ankle monitor and must check in daily with his case manager, and whenever he leaves his sister's house, where he lives.
Being on home confinement under the CARES Act is a sense of freedom, but I'm not free. I can't just go out there and say I'm going to walk or drive to the store.
He needs advance permission to do that or to go to volunteer at his church's food pantry.
How many of these they get?
Or to visit family, including his 32-year-old daughter, Antoinette (ph), who was born after he was incarcerated.
I never spent one day with her outside of the prison. Not one single day.
His sister, Cheryl Bolen, gets emotional at the thought of him going back to prison.
Cheryl Bolen, Sister of Rufus Rochelle: He done did all his time. He's still doing time. Every night, he wondering whether he got to get up in the morning or go back up. It's just wear and tear on all of us.
Rochelle, on the other hand, is philosophical.
What do you think now that there's a possibility you may have to go back to the real prison? What does that — how does that make you feel?
It saddens me. But I realize everything that happens now is for a purpose.
Right now, that purpose is advocating for clemency for those like him.
Hello. My name is Rufus Rochelle.
John Yang :
On most nights, he's on Facebook Live spreading the word.
So, why would you want to send individuals back to prison? Diana Marquez is a prime example. She has 30 years, 30 years — imagine that — for marijuana, conspiracy.
He's talking about 65-year-old Diana Marquez, who is also on COVID home confinement after about 15 years in prison for conspiracy to sell marijuana.
She was released in May 2020, and now lives with her daughter in El Paso, Texas.
Diana Marquez, Home Confinement Inmate:
Hello, hello, hello, Mr. Rufus. How are you?
All right, how you doing? How you doing?
She often reaches out to Rochelle for advice.
You must explain your situation. You want to get your message out there loud and clear.
Home confinement has given Marquez a chance not only to be with her daughter Yesenia.
How many times four give you eight?
What is the number? Two.
But also with two of her grandchildren, and for them to be with her.
Yesenia Marquez, Daughter of Diana Marquez: I am getting to know my mom again, because I was only 15 when she was incarcerated. So, it's as if we're getting to know each other again. My children have their grandmother. They're getting to know each other. It's been nice. It's been nice.
But Marquez can't bring herself to tell her grandchildren the truth about that monitoring device on her leg.
They're so innocent. I really don't want to inform what is the reason that I have an ankle bracelet on my ankle.
And she says she's constantly worried about going back to prison.
Knowing that they want to send us back to prison has been devastating me, especially myself, losing my hair, having heart palpitations. And it would be devastating for my daughter, the one that I'm living with, because I help her a lot to take care of my grandchildren.
While Marquez still has 10 years left on her sentence, she's hopeful the nature of her conviction, involving marijuana, which is now decriminalized in 27 states, will improve her chances for presidential clemency.
No, this house was being built almost 32 years ago.
In Florida, Rufus Rochelle says he also remains hopeful.
I'm not bitter.
But there are so many Rufus Rochelles incarcerated that deserve their freedom. And they truly deserve a second chance.
A second chance that has come about from an otherwise devastating pandemic.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Micanopy, Florida.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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