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Prisoners sent home for COVID can stay there, says Justice Department

The announcement ends months of uncertainty for inmates, told they would have to eventually return to prison
Posted at 6:56 PM, Dec 22, 2021

WXMI — All James Nekvasil wanted was Christmas at home, and now he’ll get it.

For much of the last two years, home is where he’s been; a quaint house in Niles with his wife and high school sweetheart Dawn.

But before that, home was a federal penitentiary. Nekvasil had been an inmate of one for 18-years, serving time for white collar crimes.

When COVID-19 ravished jails and prisons, sickening hundreds of prisoners, certain inmates with non-violent offenses were allowed to return home as a provision of the CARES Act. At first, they were told it was permanent and they wouldn’t have to go back – many had just a few months left on their sentence anyways. James had years left on his, but had exhibited good behavior behind prison walls. Either way, in September of 2020, he was released and sent home to his family, and to Christmas at home.

But in the waning days of the Trump Administration, just five days before the inauguration of Joe Biden, the Justice Department issued an opinion muddying the waters. The memo stated that, contrary to initial belief, all prisoners whose term lasted beyond the end of the pandemic – whenever that was – would need to return, and James was one of them.

“We don’t talk about it,” Nekvasil told FOX17 during an interview in October of 2021. “And when we do it’s emotionally difficult.”

On Tuesday, the Office of Legal Counsel – an arm of the Justice Department – issued another opinion, this time affirming that prisoners like James could finish their terms at home.

It was the announcement James and thousands of other federal prisoners at home for COVID release had been waiting months or years to hear.

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“In this day in age I don’t usually answer the phone if it says ‘no caller ID’ because I don’t want to get spam. But I just had this feeling that something was up.”

Kevin Ring is president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal reform group that fought for those prisoners to stay home. Tuesday night, his phone rang. All day he’d been hearing rumors that the DOJ might be considering action, so he picked up just in case.

“So I picked it up and he said, ‘hi, Kevin, this is Attorney General Merrick Garland.”

The Attorney General explained to Ring that finally, after months and months of fighting and advocating, prisoners like James would get to stay home.

“What an incredible gift to give these people at the holidays,” said Ring. “We’ve been fighting this 11-months and their anxiety became our anxiety of not knowing what was going to happen. And to get that news, it was just a huge burden lifted.”

“Thousands of people on home confinement have reconnected with their families, have found gainful employment, and have followed the rules.,” said Attorney General Garland in a statement Tuesday. “We will exercise our authority so that those who have made rehabilitative progress and complied with the conditions of home confinement, and who in the interests of justice should be given an opportunity to continue transitioning back to society, are not unnecessarily returned to prison.”

Over the course of the pandemic, the CARES Act allowed around 8,000 prisoners to be released to home confinement to finish their terms at home. Around 6,000 terms expired, which left somewhere between 2,500 – 3,500 prisoners waiting on bated breath for that answer, like James.

“These folks came home, got jobs, paying taxes, reuniting with their families, some of them started college,” said Ring. “When you realize that these folks came out early, and there’s no problem, there’s no threat to public safety, I hope it makes people question: why did we have them in there for so long?”