Eric Alvarez remembered what it felt like to hear his fiance come home from prison: overwhelming relief.
Alvarez has heart problems and struggles to care for his four children and his fiancé’s daughter during their long separation. When Eva Cardoza returned from the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, she took on a lot of burdens.
“She did everything around the house. She cooked, cleaned, took care of the kids, helped them with their homework,” Alvarez said.
More than 11,000 people like Cardoza have been released from federal prison in the past two years, weathering the pandemic at home, often with family and loved ones. But this situation can be precarious.
In June 2021, Alvarez and Cardoza took a 90-minute cab ride to the Bronx, so she could meet with staff members supervising her. Cardoza, who had tested positive for marijuana, never left the building. Alvarez ended up shelling out $433 to cover the hours the taxi meter ran while he waited in vain.
Cardoza’s return to prison has upset the family. She has now been back at Danbury for 14 months. Alvarez said she never had a chance to explain or dispute that one positive drug test.
“It’s just mind-boggling to me,” Alvarez said. “Where is the justice system? Where is the fairness? Where is the 50-50? I don’t see it.”
Less than 0.2% of those released committed new crimes during their absence
This week, the Bureau of Prisons told NPR that 442 people who were released during the pandemic have now returned to prison. Only 17 of the more than 11,000 people who have been released have committed new crimes, mostly drug-related, while they were away. More than half, some 230 people, including Eva Cardoza, were fired for alleged alcohol or drug use. Other cases involved technical violations.
Sakira Cook of racial justice group Color of Change explained what this means.
“It could be as simple as not answering the phone when your probation officer calls you. It could be as simple as the ankle monitor giving the wrong signal about your location,” Cook said.
Cook has personal experience with the latter issue: A parent recently left federal prison on house arrest, only to get a non-working ankle monitor. Fortunately, she says, the probation officer understood the situation.
Kevin Ring advocates for people in prison and their families at FAMM, formerly known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
“Under normal circumstances, someone who violates their home confinement is sent back to halfway house or jail, but the stakes are much lower,” Ring said. “They only come back for a month or two.”
But some of those freed from prison under bipartisan pandemic legislation called the Cares Act still have years to serve.
“Is it really worth sending people away for years because they missed a phone call or had alcohol in their urine?” Ring asked.
Hoping for due process as a judge rules current procedures are unconstitutional
Most surveillance of homebound people is done by private contractors, said Sarah Russell, a professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law.
“There can be a lot of room for misunderstandings and misunderstandings,” Russell said.
Russell said that was all the more reason to ensure the right to due process for those facing removal: the ability to see the evidence against them and to have a hearing before a neutral arbitrator.
Last week, one of Russell’s clients won those rights in court. Judge Omar Williams’ ruling is the first in the nation to declare the current process for returning people to federal prison after home confinement to be unconstitutional.
Russell said her other clients – mothers with young children – are always nervous about having to leave their lives unexpectedly.
“My real hope is that this will be dealt with nationally through the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice,” Russell said. “They have a real opportunity to establish clear procedures and criteria.”
Other lawsuits by those sent back to prison are pending. The Bureau of Prisons said it could not comment on this ongoing litigation. But he is considering a new federal rule to make the process clearer.
For Eric Alvarez, 46, it can’t come too soon. He was diagnosed with colon cancer, the same disease that claimed his uncle years ago.
“And my heart isn’t up to it to take this kind of abuse and now I’m going through it on my own,” he said. “It’s just that I’m afraid to die alone.”
Alvarez talks to her fiancé in jail on the phone or via video calls. But he said it wasn’t the same as having her at home.