The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I was sent back to jail for going to a computer class. It’s time to act on home confinement.

Gwen Levi was released from prison last year during the coronavirus pandemic. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Gwen Levi is a mother and grandmother who lives in Baltimore. She served 16 years of a drug sentence before receiving compassionate release in July 2021.

Until recently, I was one of the thousands of people serving home confinement due to the covid-19 pandemic. But because of a minor misunderstanding, I spent three weeks back in prison, this time in the D.C. Jail, because I attended a computer class without written permission.

I was so excited when I was approved for home confinement in June 2020, the day before my 75th birthday. I was fitted with an ankle monitor that tracked every move I made, and I could not go anywhere without permission from my case manager. But I was aware of the restrictions and grateful to be at home with my 95-year-old mother and family.

I had signed up for a computer class administered by the Maryland Justice Project, which was being held in a building owned by the Baltimore City Police Department. I didn’t know the building was designed to prevent GPS and other signals as a security measure, so the ankle monitor I was required to wear lost its signal.

My case manager called me, but unfortunately, I had turned my phone off during the class to better pay attention.

Though I’d attended a class already, when I turned my phone back on and I spoke to my case manager, they informed me that I’d been labeled an “escapee.” I had to return to prison.

I had already spent more than 16 years in jail for my role in a drug conspiracy in Baltimore. My original sentence was 33 years, but a change in the law reduced it to 24. Last June, I was released to home confinement under the Cares Act, a law Congress passed at the beginning of the pandemic.

To reduce the spread of the deadly virus in federal prisons, the Cares Act gave the Justice Department the authority to send people from jail to home confinement earlier than usual. Eligibility was determined under strict standards set by former attorney general William P. Barr. People had to have completed more than 50 percent of their sentence, never engaged in violence, committed no disciplinary infractions in the past year and received the lowest score on the department’s risk-assessment tool.

After my release to home confinement, I began advocating for criminal justice reform, especially for women, people of color and those without a lot of money — for people like me.

During this short time, I met many others who cared about equity in the justice system. When they heard what happened to me, media outlets were soon writing about the 76-year-old grandmother who was sent back to prison for going to a computer class.

That attention brought to my case might have helped to change my judge’s heart, leading to me being granted compassionate release and ending my sentence. But now that I am free, I am more committed than ever to trying to prevent others from having their freedom snatched away for little reason.

President Biden first needs to commute the sentences of the more than 4,000 on home confinement. Those people, like me, were told when we left prison under the Cares Act that we would remain home for the rest of our sentences.

For the past several months, however, there has been a cloud hanging over our heads. In the final days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a legal opinion saying that when the pandemic emergency period ends, the people on home confinement must return to federal prison.

By sending thousands of us to home confinement, the Cares Act saved lives from covid-19 and allowed us to reunite with our families early. The vast majority of us found work, reconnected with our loved ones and became productive members of society.

Those of us in home confinement are stunned and scared. We had hoped that after the election, the new Biden administration would stop such a cruel and unnecessary action from going forward.

President Biden, please act now to keep these people home. They are doing everything right, yet they wake up every day not knowing where they will be in a few months, and that uncertainty makes it impossible to plan for their futures. Please remove that cloud. Commute their sentences now.

I am happy to be home now, but I will not rest until President Biden uses his authority to stop the 4,000 people sent to home confinement during the pandemic from returning to federal prison.