Published on: Tuesday, April 13, 2021

As officials scrambled last year to stem the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, the Justice Department released more than 23,800 people serve their sentences at home. But as more people are vaccinated, thousands could be hauled back into prison to serve the remainder of their sentences, thanks to a little-noticed legal opinion issued by the Justice Department in the waning days of the previous administration (article available here).

The memo offers a strict legal interpretation of the CARES Act, a 2020 law that gave the attorney general the authority to release low-level inmates into home confinement during the pandemic. Once the emergency is lifted, the memo says, the federal Bureau of Prisons “must recall prisoners in home confinement to correctional facilities” if they do not otherwise qualify to remain at home - a move that could impact as many as 7,399 BOP inmates who currently remain out on home confinement because they still have time left on their sentences.

A BOP spokesman said the bureau is aware of the memo but declined to answer further questions. A union official who represents correctional staff said he believed that ordering everyone back to prison would be logistically “impossible.” “We don’t have the staff,” said Joe Rojas, the Southeast Regional Vice President at Council Of Prison Locals. “We are already in chaos as it is as an agency.”

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), along with a bipartisan group of 27 members of the House of Representatives, asked President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland to reverse the opinion in a April 8, 2021, letter to prioritize the memo's reversal and rescind it. “We urge you to use your executive clemency authority or direct the Justice Department to seek compassionate release for people who have demonstrated that they no longer need to be under federal supervision,” they wrote.