Months since incarcerated people were sent home to serve out their sentences due to the spread of COVID-19, thousands are now facing the possibility of returning back to prison.
Last year, The Marshall Project reported that only 7% of low-risk Black male incarcerated people would be considered for release, per an investigation. Those who did go home were taunted when just 15 days before President Joe Biden took office, Donald Trump’s Justice Department penned a memo forcing roughly 4,500 incarcerated people back to prison after the emergency period ended, Axios reported.
During an interview with Blavity, Fulton, a first-time offender who was released Sept. 2020 after serving 17 years behind bars, said the BOP saw him fit for home confinement based on his progress despite being considered a danger to society by a judge's orders years prior. In less than 10 months at home, Fulton has earned his Commercial Driver's License and even secured a job offer paying $24 an hour. At home, he's currently serving the remainder of his 33-year sentence.
"I'm just proud of the fact that I'm out, just working on getting myself reactivated with society," he said joyfully.
In Oct. 2003, Fulton was indicted, along with 19 other individuals, on drug conspiracy which involved approximately 50 grams of crack and five kilograms of powder cocaine. According to BOP, drug offenses account for approximately 46% of federal crimes.
Despite Fulton and thousands of others being sent home to serve out his remaining sentence, The New York Times published an article stating that Biden's legal team concluded the Trump Administration memo had correctly interpreted the law. Incarcerated people now face the pressure of being sent back to prison once the pandemic is officially over.
“President Biden is committed to reducing incarceration and helping people to re-enter society,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman said, according to the article. “As he has said, too many Americans are incarcerated, and too many are Black and brown. His administration is focused on reforming our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy and give people a chance at a better future.”
Per the Second Chance Act passed during George W. Bush’s presidency, federal prisons were introduced to at-home federal custody, otherwise known as home confinement, in which low-risk incarcerated people were allowed to carry out the last six months or 10% of their sentences at home. Last year, Congress expanded that time under the 2020 CARES Act in response to fears of spreading COVID-19 by broadening the Federal Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) authority to send eligible incarcerated people to their families, The Hill reported.
As of July 19, 2021, more than 400,000 incarcerated people nationwide tested positive for the virus, according to statistics from The Covid Prison Project.
Originally led by then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr in April 2020, the memo stated that at-risk incarcerated people appeared “safer serving their sentences in home confinement.” According to The Hill, 25,244 people incarcerated in federal prisons for nonviolent crimes were released due to the emergency. BOP ballooned that number to 28,667 on its website.
“We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement, where appropriate, to move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions,” Barr wrote.
But the rather inexplicit plan had its internal flaws. Comprehension of eligibility was already dizzying for incarcerated people and their families alike, according to Forbes.
Several nonprofits, including Justice Action Network, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have worked together against Trump’s memo in a letter sent to Biden and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. Most recently the groups, along with a list of others, sent a joint letter to Biden, urging him to use his power of clemency by commuting the sentences of incarcerated people like Fulton to avoid increasing mass incarceration.
“We ask that you issue an order that contains a presumption that all people in home confinement under the CARES Act will have their sentences commuted, unless the [BOP] can prove an articulable and current threat of violent harm,” the letter read.
Additionally, FAMM organized the #KeepThemHome campaign to highlight several incarcerated people, particularly those who are Black and brown and have bettered their lives since being released on home confinement. Fulton appeared in the video as well as Miranda McLauren, a 43-year-old disabled Black female veteran who was initially convicted on low-level drug charges. She was released in Feb. 2021 after serving 18 months in federal prison and now has a job.
The campaign has been widely favored by nonprofits alike with several voicing its support on Twitter.
Let's provide #SecondChances to those who are reentering society, reconnecting with family, and pursuing employment.
Read our letter: https://t.co/k2EVVoLGyG
— Due Process Institute (@iDueProcess) July 19, 2021
He must use his power of clemency to commute the sentences of 4,000+ people living in home confinement due to the CARES Act to prevent an impending crisis. The time for action is now: https://t.co/PPah08CHhr
— The Leadership Conference (@civilrightsorg) July 19, 2021
Justice Action Network President Holly Harris retweeted a message posted by the FAMM Foundation president to Biden.
WE AREN’T DUMB, @POTUS! Sending thousands of low-level prisoners back who have followed the rules, found jobs, hugged their kids, doesn’t solve violent crime problems. It does, however, waste a crap ton of taxpayer dollars and destroy families. Again. #keepthemhome
— Holly Harris (@holly_harris) July 20, 2021
FAMM has since started a petition urging Biden to extend the home confinement authority. It has reached more than 6,000 signees of its 7,000 signature goal. The ACLU has also created a separate petition.
Some have begun to challenge Biden due to previous criticism he faced for supporting the 1994 Crime Bill, which ultimately increased prison population figures, The Hill reported.
Fulton, however, told Blavity he doesn't pay much attention to the politics but does believe an overhaul decision from the Biden Administration is still crucial. He said it should come easy since he and other incarcerated people serving time under BOP have already been screened and cleared for home confinement. Some politicians agree, and question why they should be sent back.
On April 8, 2021, more than two dozen members of Congress signed a letter to Biden requesting that he reverse the Trump Administration's memo. The letter did not hold back when confronting Biden's early campaign remarks in regard to reducing nationwide incarceration.
"The vast majority of those people on home confinement today have reunited with their families and are working and contributing to society. They were not told they would have to return to prison and forcing them to do so would be cruel and devastating," the letter argued.
"You rightly pledged to reduce the federal prison population. Sending thousands of people back to federal prison who have already proven that they do not need to be there would undermine this commitment and would undermine, not advance, public safety," it continued.
By late April, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) called on Garland to rescind the memo. In their letter, the senators addressed The CARES Act, to which they clarified never suggested that prisoners would be removed from their homes after the pandemic, or ever.
"The purpose of [the plan] is to allow prisoners to finish the remainder of their sentence in home confinement," their letter read. "Recalling prisoners, absent a violation of the terms of release, is contrary to that goal."
Now 48 years old, Fulton has since launched Life In The Feds, a site that aims to help others better understand the federal prison system and gives advice to those dealing with the criminal justice system themselves.
"My main goal is to keep people out. I want to tell them, look, let me be an example of what not to do," Fulton told Blavity.
Despite his fears of returning to federal prison, Fulton said he continues to remain hopeful. He uses his faith in God to get himself through moments of difficulty.
"Nothing happens without [God's] permission," Fulton said assuredly. “The fact that I'd been [behind bars] 17 years, four months and 50 days, is proof that you’re gonna make it; you’ll get through it.”