NO TOUCHING ALLOWED

solitarywatch.org

No Touching Allowed for Many LGBTQ+ People in Prison

Sept 16, 2021


After a Thanksgiving Day meal, “J,” who was incarcerated at North Central Correctional Institute in Massachusetts, complained of a stomach ache. His friend Carlos, who requested to be identified by his first name only, leaned down from his top bunk and rubbed J’s head jokingly. “There, there,” he said, as the men laughed. Later that day, Carlos, who identifies as gay, was taken to solitary confinement in the Special Housing Unit (SHU). 

Carlos’s friendly head pat had been noticed by a correctional officer, who told him, “I don’t care what you are, but you’re a man, and what I saw was PREA.” The officer was accusing Carlos of violating the rules laid out in the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 federal law that aims to protect incarcerated people from sexual violence by establishing clearer procedures, collecting better data, and providing resources to correctional institutions. 

Fortunately for Carlos, other prison officials took his side and he was soon released from the SHU. But he should never have been there in the first place: Platonic physical touch, like his interaction with J, is not prohibited by PREA standards. Despite his unfair placement, Carlos’s weekend stay in “the hole” caused him to permanently lose his place in his housing unit and, therefore, his job, as well as the good time credits he had built up to reduce his sentence by participating in programming.

Carlos’s story is not unique. Although PREA was backed by many advocacy groups and passed by Congress with unanimous bipartisan support, a law is only as good as its implementation. From Carlos’s letter to Solitary Watch, multiple interviews with other formerly and currently incarcerated individuals, and accounts from advocates, it is clear that PREA’s intent is at times being twisted or misinterpreted to cause additional harm. 

Correctional officers in many prisons and jails prohibit platonic touching, issue disciplinary infractions based on their own personal biases and beliefs instead of the official rules, conflate consensual sex with rape, and appropriate PREA standards not to protect, but to punish. This misuse of PREA leads to unfair punishment, including time in solitary confinement, and is far more likely to affect LGBTQ+ individuals, who are already incarcerated at disproportionately high rates. Several LGBTQ+ people also emphasized to Solitary Watch how their treatment in the system was further compounded by their racial identities. 

Punished for Platonic Touching

Michael Cox, executive director for Black and Pink Massachusetts (which is not affiliated with the national organization of the same name), had an experience similar to Carlos’s. When he was incarcerated in the same Massachusetts prison in 2011, Cox and his friend—both of whom were openly LGBTQ+—hugged goodbye in the prison yard. He said correctional officers approached them, led by a lieutenant, who ordered, “Lock them up.” 

When Cox asked why they were being punished, he was told the hug was a PREA violation. Like Carlos, he spent the weekend in solitary before the administration reviewed his case and let him out.

“It was very apparent that it was just a hug,” Cox said. “And even if the suspicion was that we were in an intimate relationship, that shouldn’t be enough to put someone in solitary confinement. It is stigmatizing for LGBT people that we are treated differently than others while in the system. It happens all the time.”

In the largest-ever survey of incarcerated LGBTQ+ individuals, 85 percent of the 1,118 respondents reported spending time in solitary confinement—half of whom said they were in solitary for two or more years. The survey, which was conducted by Black & Pink, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for the abolition of prisons, further found that respondents of color were twice as likely as white respondents to have experienced isolation. Transgender individuals were especially likely to be placed in solitary, often as “protective custody,” a form of solitary confinement used with the intent of removing people from unsafe environments. 

And although PREA does not ban hugging, some prisons have. Kelly Savage-Rodriguez, a program coordinator with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners (CCWP), was incarcerated in a California prison for almost two decades; for eight years of that time, the prison had a memorandum prohibiting hugs. 

She said the ban made her job as a grief counselor more difficult. “It was really inappropriate when we would have somebody who the sergeant or captain notified of a loss, and [the individual] couldn’t even get a hug in a serious grief moment,” Savage-Rodriguez said.

Risks of Consensual Relationships

While platonic touching is prohibited in certain prisons and jails, consensual sex is banned almost everywhere, and often leads to time in solitary. But some people who are in consensual relationships are targeted by correctional officers more so than others. Savage-Rodriguez, for example, was incarcerated in the same facility as her spouse, both of whom are white. They were allowed to remain housed together, which Savage-Rodriguez believes was because they looked feminine and led programming in the prison.

Krystal Shelley, an activist who also works at CCWP, was not as fortunate. Shelley, who does not identify as male or female and is Black, said that while they were sharing a cell with their partner at Valley State Prison for Women, correctional officers planted a shank under their mattress. Shelley was sent to the SHU.

“It was falsified documentation upon me, just due to the fact that they did not want me living with my partner,” Shelley said. Then a second shank was planted under their bed, they said, leading to another six-month stay in solitary.

Dominique Morgan, the executive director of Black & Pink and a Black trans woman, was punished with solitary confinement and separated from her partner as well during her incarceration. At age 19, Morgan entered the Omaha Correctional Center, an adult facility for men, after having spent many of her teenage years in juvenile detention. Around that same time, she started to identify as female.

Morgan met Doug, who was incarcerated in the facility as well, and fell in love. They made plans together for when they got out; they introduced each other to their families. Morgan leaned on Doug as she grieved the death of her father. “I was building a family in a space where I felt alone,” she said.

But after two years, their consensual sexual activity was reported by another incarcerated individual, and they were sent to solitary for 90 days, which she says was an unusually long stint. 

“The irony was that I would see people who were being pressured [into sex], and the state would never step in in those situations,” Morgan said. 

After those 90 days, Morgan and Doug were sent to solitary in separate prisons—Morgan to a maximum security facility. The review board at that facility repeatedly recommended her release from solitary, but each time the warden appealed to keep her in.

“I remember thinking: ‘I’m not violent…I’m stuck in this hole. I’m scared. I’m alone,’” Morgan said. “It was sad to realize it was all because of my sexual orientation and gender identity.” 

After 18 months, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska intervened, and Morgan was released from solitary. 

“I was happy to [go to the general population], but I was even more afraid because you took me from a minimum security prison and then you are going to put me in the general population in the supermax prison?” Morgan said. 

She added that this happened 20 years ago, and she is hearing similar stories from incarcerated people now.  

PREA Problems Abound

The PREA Resource Center (PRC), which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is charged with carrying out the work of PREA by implementing training sessions and reviewing audits. The PREA standards require all correctional facilities to track incidents and undergo PREA audits at least once every three years, which are conducted by third-party individuals trained and certified by the DOJ.

Since the PREA Standards were implemented, reports of sexual victimization filed by correctional officers have increased significantly, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Researchers at the Urban Institute believe that the increase in reports may be a sign that incarcerated individuals are increasingly likely to trust the system now that PREA has been in place for some time.

Yet, experts are still concerned about the usage of the policy.

Amy Fettig—the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit fighting against mass incarceration—was trained as a PREA auditor and spent years working to help finalize the standards in her former role as deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. 

Many are concerned that PREA is “being used as a sword instead of a shield,” Fettig said. “Anecdotally, we have heard from clients that affectionate behavior is being criminalized because there is animus towards the LGBT community in prisons.” 

But this is not the law’s intent. Fettig said that correctional officers and facilities are interpreting the law differently. “PREA doesn’t say no touching…I think when we have seen PREA abused, it is more about homophobia than anything else.”

Cox, from Black and Pink Massachusetts, agrees. He said he does not believe he would have been punished for giving a hug if not for PREA. In his view, after their training, “the takeaway from guards was that anything LGBT-related is now criminalized.”

Julie Abbate, the national advocacy director for the nonprofit Just Detention, which works to end sexual abuse behind bars, noted that physical touch is complex.

“In men’s facilities, what looks like what might be consensual [to staff] could be what is called ‘protective pairing,’ where somebody who is maybe more vulnerable agrees to pair up with a stronger inmate and provide sex in exchange for protection,” she said. 

But women’s behavior is often different from men, according to Abbate.

“Women have platonic relationships oftentimes where they might hold hands, or hug each other, or put their arms around each other.” She, too, said she has heard of certain jurisdictions incorrectly punishing platonic touching as alleged PREA violations.

To address this, correctional staff should receive a “deeper, nuanced training and understanding of human sexuality,” Abbate said, as well as better training for the signs of coercive or protective relationships.

Morgan, from Black & Pink, believes PREA generally leaves too much discretion in the hands of correctional officers. “You left the power in the institutions who were harming them [incarcerated individuals] in the first place,” she said.

Some of the PRC’s weakness stems from a general lack of resources, as well as a reliance on private contractors to act as the auditors overseeing PREA implementation, Fettig said. She would rather see more power and authority in the hands of a government oversight agency.

Abbate said the PRC has taken on an increased workload since its creation, to the point where it could double in size. 

Asked to comment on Solitary Watch’s findings, the PREA Resource Center provided a statement saying that if facilities request support in “achieving and maintaining compliance with the PREA Standards,” the PRC and PREA Management Office offer assistance. Requests from facilities “regularly” pertain to protecting LGBTQ+ individuals, according to the statement.

Long-Lasting Trauma

Being sent to solitary confinement for any length of time or for any reason can have devastating mental health effects. Since his time in solitary for platonic touching, Carlos said he has developed issues with anxiety. “The sound of keys and [hand]cuffs ‘triggers’ me—even a phone ringing or my name being called by an officer,” he wrote to Solitary Watch.

Isolation has also left an indelible mark on Shelley, who spent two one-year stints in solitary confinement, as well as additional sporadic time throughout their incarceration. Although they came home in 2012, they said the experience of solitary continues to make it harder to communicate, which in turn makes everyday tasks difficult.

“It is 2021. Solitary confinement is still affecting me today,” Shelley said. “I tend to want to be alone often…And don’t get me wrong, I go out—but I definitely don’t go out and live life as much as I should.”

Reparations for Survivors of CA Forced Sterilizations

theguardian.com

Survivors of California’s forced sterilizations: ‘It’s like my life wasn’t worth anything’

Erin McCormick

July 19, 2021


It wasn’t until years after Kelli Dillon went into surgery while incarcerated in the California state prison system that she realized her reproductive capacity had been stripped away without her knowledge.

In 2001, at the age of 24, she became one of the most recent victims in a history of forced sterilizations in California that stretches back to 1909 and served as an inspiration for Nazi Germany’s eugenics program.

But now, under new provisions signed into California’s budget this week, the state will offer reparations for the thousands of people who were sterilized in California institutions, without adequate consent, often because they were deemed “criminal”, “feeble-minded” or “deviant”.

The program will be the first in the nation to provide compensation to modern-day survivors of prison system sterilizations, like Dillon, whose attorney obtained medical records to show that, while she was an inmate in the Central California women’s facility in Chowchilla, surgeons had removed her ovaries during what was supposed to be an operation to take a biopsy and remove a cyst.

The investigations sparked by her case, which is featured in the documentary Belly of the Beast, showed hundreds of inmates had been sterilized in prisons without proper consent as late as 2010, even though the practice was by then illegal.

The new California reparations program will also seek to compensate hundreds of living survivors of the state’s earlier eugenics campaign, which was first codified into state law in 1909 and wasn’t repealed until 1979.

That law allowed state authorities to sterilize people in state-run institutions, who were deemed to have “mental disease which may have been inherited” and was “likely to be transmitted to descendants”. The law was later greatly expanded to include “those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality”. Those targeted were often Black or Latina women, though some men were sterilized as well.

“California established these egregious eugenics laws, that were actually even followed by Hitler himself, in an effort to curb the population of unwanted individuals or people with disabilities,” said the state assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, who introduced the bill to create the compensation program.

Wendy Carrillo introduced the bill to create the compensation program.

Wendy Carrillo introduced the bill to create the compensation program. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

She said, in all, more than 20,000 people were sterilized in California, including the historic cases prior to 1979 and hundreds of additional cases in the prisons documented until 2010. Many of the historical survivors have since died, but the state believes about 400 are still living, about a quarter of whom are expected to apply for compensation.

“No monetary compensation will ever rectify the injustice of this,” said Carrillo. “But there is a level of dignity that is bestowed on the survivors by the [state’s] acknowledgment that this happened. If we don’t do this now, when will we?”

She hopes that each qualified applicant to the program will get about $25,000 starting in 2022.

‘Saturated with racism, sexism and prejudice’

The state follows North Carolina and Virginia in developing programs to provide compensation for sterilizations that took place in the state-sanctioned eugenics programs of the mid 1900s, but California is the first to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases in the prisons. Three previous attempts to create a reparations program have failed to make it through the California legislature.

From its outset at the turn of the 20th century, the state’s eugenics campaign was steeped in the kind of racist thinking that would eventually lead to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan historian who first uncovered file cabinets filled with medical records of early California victims in 2007 in the course of researching a book on American eugenics.

“A lot of this came out as ideas of using science for the common good, human improvement, race improvement,” she said. “Of course, all that was saturated with the racism, sexism and disability prejudices of the era.”

One well-documented victim was Andrea Garcia, a 19-year-old born in Mexico, who was sterilized in 1941 under the orders of an asylum near Los Angeles for those “afflicted with feeblemindedness”. Staff there decided she shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce because she was a “mentally deficient, sex delinquent girl” from an “unfit home”, according a dissertation by Natalie Lira, a University of Michigan researcher who reviewed historic medical documents of the sterilizations uncovered by Stern.

Garcia’s mother went to court to challenge the sterilization policy, but lost her case. Both mother and daughter have since died.

Stacy Cordova, whose aunt was a victim of California’s forced sterilization program that began in 1909, holds a framed photo of her aunt Mary Franco, who was sterilised in the 1930s.

Stacy Cordova, whose aunt was a victim of California’s forced sterilization program that began in 1909, holds a framed photo of her aunt Mary Franco, who was sterilised in the 1930s. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Lira also outlined the case of 14-year-old Antonio Duran, who was sterilized in 1939, after being charged with burglary and painted as a criminal for entering a house and taking several items. The sterilization requests described him as “high tempered, unreliable, an habitual truant and a bully” and said his parents were “of low-grade Mexican mentality”.

Stern said this kind of egregious thinking wasn’t wiped out when California finally took the eugenics law off its books in 1979, around the time it also began closing the state institutions that for decades had warehoused people with mental illness and those deemed unfit for society.

She said she believes it is no coincidence that this is the same time period when the state’s prison population began to explode in an unforgiving era of mass incarceration, which she said saw many of those same people, often poor people of color, being incarcerated in prisons for long periods. It isn’t a big stretch to see how prison officials could begin abusing their power in a renewed push to prevent their charges from reproducing, Stern said.

“I see a lot of similar ingredients and sets of pre-conditions that allowed for [later] sterilization abuse in the prisons,” she said.

After undergoing sterilization without her consent or knowledge, Kelli Dillon said she began experiencing menopause symptoms when she was only 24.

“They weren’t telling me what they did and my body was going haywire,” said Dillon, who was released from prison in 2009 and now runs her own non-profit domestic violence counseling and violence prevention program and serves on a family services commission for the city of Los Angeles.

At the time, she was serving a 15-year manslaughter term for killing her abusive husband, after, she said, he hit her with an iron and threatened her two young sons.

Dillon said she had authorized the prison doctors to give her a hysterectomy only if cancer was found in the surgery, but no signs of cancer were ever reported.

She said the sterilization shattered her dreams of one day restarting her family and left her struggling with anxiety and depression.

“It was like my life wasn’t worth anything,” she said. “Somebody felt I had nothing to contribute to the point where they had to find this sneaky and diabolical way to take my ability to have children.”

A quest for justice, but concerns remain

While still incarcerated at Central California women’s facility, Dillon began to realize that many of her fellow inmates were getting hysterectomies and sterilization procedures as well. Sometimes it was after giving birth, while others had procedures that they were told were necessary to look for cancers or correcting gynecological issues. And so with her attorney, Cynthia Chandler, she began gathering the stories of other inmates.

Eventually, this led to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) that identified 132 cases of women being given tubal ligation sterilizations in the prisons without proper state approvals and a 2014 state audit, which found nearly 800 hysterectomies and other sterilizations were performed there.

One of the prison doctors told CIR that he viewed sterilization as a way to prevent prisoners from procreating and having “unwanted children” that could cost the state money.

Kelli Dillon and her attorney, Cynthia Chandler.

Kelli Dillon and her attorney, Cynthia Chandler. Photograph: Courtesy of Belly of the Beast

“He articulated that it was a cost-effective way of preventing people from needing welfare,” said attorney Chandler. “He actually thought he was doing the taxpayers a favor.”

Chandler began working on the case in the early 2000s while with the prisoner rights advocacy group Justice Now, which she co-founded. She eventually helped to get a bill passed to make it clear that prison sterilizations are illegal and has been fighting to get compensation for survivors ever since.

The procedures often left patients unclear what had happened to them.

While an inmate at Valley state prison for women in 2003, Gabriela Solano underwent a surgery in which doctors said they were going to remove her swollen left ovary, but at the end they told her they had removed her right ovary instead, she told the Guardian.

When she questioned her prison doctors about it later, she said he told her “what do you care? You’re a lifer anyway.”

“I just remember him saying that to me,” she told the Guardian in a call from Mexico, where she now lives. “A lot of the girls I knew went through unnecessary hysterectomies.”

But many advocates of the new compensation program worry that the same sentiments that allowed the eugenics abuses of the past to occur still permeate American culture.

Prisoners, people with disabilities and people of color “are still considered to be at the margins of our society and not worth the bother of dignity or respect by many”, said Hafsah Al-Amin, the program coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which has worked with many of the current and former inmates who may be eligible for the compensation.

California is the first state to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases of forced sterilization in the prisons.

California is the first state to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases of forced sterilization in the prisons. Photograph: Ric Francis/AP

“When people hear the term eugenics they often think of something that happened a long time ago,” said Lorena García Zermeño, the policy and communications coordinator for the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, a co-sponsor of the bill. “But the legacy of eugenics continues to this day.”

She pointed to recent reports of women detained in US immigration centers being unnecessarily sterilized. But she also said health disparities, such as the huge numbers of Black people and Latinos who have died of Covid-19, are rooted in the same sense of disregard for the lives of people of color and poor people.

“It’s extremely important for the state to confront the racist, sexist, ableist beliefs that perpetuate health disparities happening now.”

Dillon said the idea that California is finally going to compensate eugenics survivors makes her feel like spinning in the streets like the 1970s television character Mary Tyler Moore, who played a TV journalist.

What finally helped her come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t have children, she said, was getting to know her now-eight-year-old grandson.

“I was given an opportunity, praise God, to have children before I went to prison,” she said. “And, through that, I now have the chance to be a mom or mother figure to my grandchildren.”

CA Approves $7.5 million Reparations for Sterilization Survivors

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

July 13, 2021

CONTACT:

California Coalition for Women Prisoners: info@womenprisoners.org

Aminah Elster: aminah@womenprisoners.org, 415-255-7036 ext. 314

Hafsah Al-Amin: hafsah@womenprisoners.org, 415-255-7036 ext. 314

California Approves $7.5 Million to Provide Reparations to Survivors of State Sponsored Forced Sterilizations

Sacramento, California (July, 2021) — On July 12, 2021 Governor Gavin Newsom approved a state budget that includes $7.5 million to provide reparations to survivors of state sponsored forced or involuntary sterilizations under California’s eugenics laws from 1909-1979 and to survivors of involuntary sterilizations in women’s state prisons after 1979. Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo was instrumental in ensuring that the allocation was included in the state budget.

California is the first state to provide reparations to survivors who were sterilized while incarcerated in its state women’s prisons. California is the third state in the nation to provide monetary compensation to survivors who were sterilized under state eugenics laws. 

“The legacy of California’s eugenics laws is well-known and the repercussions continue to be felt,” said Laura Jimenez, Executive Director, CLRJ. “As reproductive justice advocates, we recognize the continued impact these state-sponsored policies have had on the dignity and rights of poor women of color who have been stripped of their ability to form the families they want. No amount of monetary compensation will ever remedy the wrongs committed but this bill is a step in the right direction in the state taking responsibility to remedy the violence inflicted on these survivors.”

Between 1909 and 1979, California sterilized at least 20,000 people under State law — accounting for one third of eugenics sterilizations nationwide. People with disabilities, Latinas, women, and poor people were disproportionately targeted for sterilization.

Staff Attorney Carly A. Myers stated, “After 4 years of advocating for reparations, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) is heartened that California has taken a necessary f step towards ending its legacy of eugenics. We are hopeful this marks a turning point in this State’s treatment of people with disabilities and others who have been targeted for reproductive oppression.”

Although the State repealed its eugenics law in 1979, coerced and forced sterilizations continued in State prisons into the 2010’s.  Attorney Cynthia Chandler, who has spent the last two decades advocating for imprisoned sterilization survivors, points out: “Forced and involuntary sterilizations have never stopped in California.  Lack of government accountability for its eugenic past made possible the contemporary sterilization abuse in CA prisons and more recently in the Georgia Irwin immigration detention center.”

Between 2006 and 2010, a state audit revealed that at least 144 people, the majority of whom identify as Black and Latinx, were illegally sterilized during labor and delivery while in custody in women’s prisons. 

“The California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) hails this groundbreaking reparations program for incarcerated women and trans people who suffered involuntary sterilization while in California prisons,” stated Aminah Elster, CCWP’s Campaign and Policy Coordinator. “We hope this victory paves the way for other BIPOC communities to achieve additional forms of reparations in response to centuries of state sanctioned violence and abuse.”  Elster went on to comment, “CCWP and the co-sponsor organizations are committed to ensuring that all the eligible survivors of sterilization abuse are notified and able to apply for compensation under the program.  We are in touch with many incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who should be eligible for compensation but there is a lot more outreach that needs to be done.”

Coerced sterilization of people in women’s prisons was the subject of the feature-length documentary, Belly of the Beast which was released in fall 2020. “I’m thrilled Belly of the Beast contributed to this historic moment and we will continue to shine a light on our nation’s dark past until these heinous practices are eradicated,” says Director/Producer Erika Cohn. The PBS re-release, in celebration of this historic victory, starts today on PBS.org: https://www.pbs.org/video/belly-of-the-beast-7puv5r/ and will be streaming for free through the end of July.

Sterilization survivor and film participant, Kelli Dillon, who is also the founder of the organization Back to the Basics says, “To this day, many survivors who were sterilized while in prison still don’t know that their reproductive capacities were stolen from them. With the launch of reparations, we will finally receive justice that we have fought so long for and the healing process can truly begin. It’s time.”

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This budget request was co-sponsored by Back tothe Basics Community Empowerment (B2B), California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), California Latinas forReproductive Justice (CLRJ), and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), in collaboration with the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab.

Gwen Levi Freed by Judge thru Compassionate Release

commondreams.org

Gwen Levi’s Release Reveals Persistent Cruelty of Mass Incarceration—Biden Must Use Clemency Powers to Stop Spread of COVID-19

July 6, 2021


For Immediate Release

Tuesday July 6, 2021, 4:13pm EDT

Scott Roberts, Senior Director of Criminal Justice and Democracy Campaigns at Color Of Change, issued this statement after a federal judge granted compassionate release to 76-year-old Gwen Levi:

“After weeks of legal battles and hard-fought advocacy from her family and supporters, Gwen Levi is finally free. Ms. Levi, a 76-year-old mother, grandmother, friend, and cancer survivor, was serving a sentence on home confinement, due to the dire health concerns in prison facilities at the height of the pandemic. But after she missed a call from a case manager during a computers skills class that she believed, with good reason, she had been approved to attend, Ms. Levi was deemed an ‘escapee,’ once again ripped from her family, and returned to jail — where she faced a high risk for COVID-19 infection and even death — on a technicality. Today, this judge’s ruling confirms what we’ve known all along: mass incarceration is a threat to health, safety, and basic human rights of Black communities, particularly in the midst of a global health crisis.

“However, for nearly 4,500 people 65 years and older, who were released to home confinement due to COVID-19, the threat of re-incarceration remains. Not just as a result of these draconian technical violations, but as the result of a legal memo issued days before Trump left office, stating that people would be returned to prison once the pandemic is declared over. For months, we have urged officials to rescind the Trump administration’s legal memo and keep elderly and immunocompromised individuals at home. But because of their inaction, thousands are at risk of being returned to prison like Ms. Levi was. Now, the only way to protect these individuals is with presidential clemency. We — along with nearly 50,000 Color Of Change members who’ve signed our petition — are urging President Biden to use his clemency powers to stop the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons, protect the sick and elderly, and keep them home.

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Clemency for Gwen Levi

After spending 16 years incarcerated in federal prisons, Gwen Levi was finally home.

Released to home confinement last June, Ms. Levi spent the past year reconnecting with her sons and grandsons, helping to take care of her elderly mother, volunteering at advocacy organizations that provide critical services for incarcerated people, and perhaps most crucially – increasing her chances of staying safe from COVID-19 as a 76-year-old cancer survivor. 

But one year after her release, Ms. Levi was sent back to prison. 

Why? Because she missed a phone call from her case manager while she was in a class to learn computer skills in order to get a job as an essential worker. 

Ms. Levi was one of thousands of people, deemed “low risk”, and released from federal prison to finish their sentences on home confinement last year due to the increased threat of the pandemic in prisons. The vast majority of those released were elderly and living with preexisting health conditions, often exacerbated by the lack of healthcare within the prison system. 

But even despite the 99.9% success rate of home confinement, the Trump Administration used its final days to issue a legal memo that would not only force people to return to federal prison, but also require people to pay their own way back. 

We tried to move the Department of Justice to rescind the memo, but were met with silence. Now Ms. Levi is back in a cage. 

Now is the time to call on President Biden to use his powers of clemency to release Ms. Levi from prison and protect 4,500 others just like her who are at risk of being sent back when the pandemic is declared over.  

It’s clear that this is about punishment, not public safety or rehabilitation. Ms. Levi was trying to better herself and as a result was sent to live in a cage.

If the Biden Administration won’t grant clemency to Ms. Levi and keep 4,500 people at home – he will be presiding over the fastest expansion of the federal prison population in history.

This is not what we voted for. 

Ms. Levi deserves better, and she needs our support. 

Add your name to the call for justice. Let’s move President Biden to grant clemency for Ms. Levi and 4,500 others on home confinement.