In the year she was out of prison, Gwen Levi, 76, was thriving.
After serving 16 years in different federal facilities for dealing heroin, Levi was allowed to leave last June and finish her 24-year sentence in home confinement under the supervision of federal prison officials. She moved in with her 94-year-old mother in Baltimore and volunteered at prisoner advocacy organizations, hoping for a paying job to come along. She was also building her relationships with her sons and grandsons.
But Levi’s season on the outside ended June 12 after she attended a computer word-processing class in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. A Federal Bureau of Prisons incident report said she was out of contact for a few hours with the officials supervising her.
Levi is now at the D.C. jail awaiting transfer to a federal facility, according to her attorney, Sapna Mirchandani, of Maryland’s Office of the Federal Public Defender.
“There’s no question she was in class,” Mirchandani said. “As I was told, because she could have been robbing a bank, they’re going to treat her as if she was robbing a bank.”
Levi is one of about 4,500 federal prisoners sent to home confinement last year to protect them from contracting the coronavirus. Advocates celebrated the move by the Trump administration and expected that President Joe Biden would continue to keep former inmates home even after the pandemic receded.
But while Biden has taken steps supported by criminal justice advocates, the White House has appeared to follow President Donald Trump’s lead with respect to a Justice Department memo calling for nearly all people to return to prison when the public health emergency ends.
The administration hasn’t weighed in on the binding Justice Department memo, issued in the final days of Trump’s presidency. The White House and Justice Department wouldn’t comment when asked by The Washington Post about the return of inmates to prison on seemingly minor violations.
Kristie A. Breshears, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said in an email that the agency cannot discuss individual cases. However, sanctions “are not imposed in a capricious or retaliatory manner,” she said, and bureau staff “are the determining factor when making determinations regarding transferring an inmate back to secure custody.”
Breshears added that the Bureau of Prisons could decide to allow inmates near the end of their sentences to stay on home confinement after the pandemic.
“For the more difficult cases, where inmates still have years left to serve, this will be an issue only after the pandemic is over,” she said. “The president recently extended the national emergency and the Department of Health and Human Services has said the public health crisis is likely to last for the rest of the year.”
According to Levi’s Bureau of Prisons incident report, the officials supervising her were alerted by her ankle monitor at 10:51 a.m. that she was not home. She did not answer calls to her phone for the next few hours. By 1:17 p.m., the ankle monitor showed she was back at her approved address. The report noted the incident as an “escape.”
In a statement released by Mirchandani, Levi said she was “devastated.”
“I feel like I was attempting to do all the right things,” Levi said. “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.”
Other prisoners released to home confinement during the pandemic also are being sent back.
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.
“You cannot hold someone’s freedom of speech over their head on home confinement,” she said.
Breshears said she could not comment on an individual inmate’s conditions of confinement.
Kevin Ring, president of nonprofit prisoner advocacy organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said returning people on home confinement to prison for minor violations is “counter to human nature.” The Biden administration should say whether it will rescind the Trump administration memo, he said.
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“This is exactly what we feared from them delaying resolution of this issue,” he said. “Every day is torture. They’re worried about going back to prison. ... Waiting is the hardest part.”
Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, said that if the Justice Department won’t rescind the memo, the Biden administration could use another legal tool: clemency. Osler said he has spoken to administration officials about that possibility.
But such grants could prove controversial as Biden announces measures to combat violent crime amid an increase in violence across the country.
The transfer of prisoners to home confinement during the pandemic has proved to be safe, Osler said. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal said three inmates transferred to home confinement have been arrested on new charges.
“The facade of their incarceration in the interest of public safety has been knocked over,” Osler said.
As national leaders debate criminal justice, Levi is back behind bars. Her son Craig Levi said it was a blessing to have his mother home. Now, she’s gone.
“We don’t understand how it escalated,” he said. “It’s unjustified — the stress that they put on the family.”