For Raquel Esquival, the onerous requirements of the home confinement program—an ankle monitor, limited range of movement, and mandatory check-ins multiple times a day with a halfway house—were a small price to pay to be able to live with her children again. A 37-year-old mother of three who had been in prison for eleven years, she was released on home confinement in May of 2020. She spent the year after her release reconnecting with her two older children and building a relationship with her youngest, to whom she gave birth while incarcerated and who was taken from her when he was only hours old.

Her release was a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which ripped through the country’s prisons, where rates of chronic illness are higher than among the general population, overcrowding is rampant, and physical distancing is near impossible. In March of 2020, the Department of Justice, using the CARES Act, released 4,500 people deemed particularly vulnerable to the virus—and who had demonstrated good behavior while incarcerated—on home confinement, with a rigorous monitoring program. One of these people was Raquel Esquival, whose story was recently featured in an Insider article by reporter Jamie Roth.

Esquival managed to find a job with supportive and understanding colleagues, and she fell in love with a man named Ricky Gonzalez, who would spend time with her outdoors at her mother’s house. Soon the two were engaged and expecting a child. A new life seemed within reach.

In May, Esquivel was told that her ankle monitor showed she had left her place of work without permission. She was stunned: Her phone’s call log showed she had indeed called the halfway house to let them know she was going on a site visit for her job. Her boss and another colleague confirmed her account and said she was always unfailingly diligent with her check-ins. On at least five occasions, though, Esquivel had reported her location, only for the halfway house to call her moments later to ask where she was. Nevertheless, three federal agents took her back to prison.

These structural failures have affected more prisoners than Esquivel, of course. Incarcerated people are five times more likely to contract the virus than those outside. To date, almost 3,000 people (possibly more) have died from Covid-19 in prisons and more than half a million have been infected.

Meanwhile, Esquivel’s appeals have been rejected, and a petition for compassionate release has been filed, but Esquivel remains in prison, where she is due to give birth in October.

Guernica spoke with Jamie Roth, a freelance journalist who writes regularly about criminal justice and continues to follow Ms. Esquivel’s story.

—Laura Dean for Guernica

Guernica: What’s the background of the home confinement policies that allowed Raquel Esquivel a reprieve during COVID?

Roth: Home confinement has been around for a long time and, in the past, it was more or less only granted to inmates who were approaching the end of their sentences. In this case, it was used because prison overcrowding was such a problem during the pandemic that Attorney General Barr said we needed to make use of this tool. I think advocates want the general public and the Department of Justice to understand that this worked. For this prescreened group of 4,500, this low-risk group, it showed they didn’t need to be locked up. They’re not a public safety risk, because we only had three offences from this group.

The recidivism rate on average is like 50 percent. It’s pretty high because prisons are not known to rehabilitate and help people reform, but rather produce crime, So, if we’re looking to reimagine how we punish, if we’re looking to really do something about our very punitive system, we should look at the success of this experiment.

Guernica: What was your first thought when you heard Raquel Esquivel’s story?

Roth: I found it hard to believe. How could this be happening? You know, as a reporter, when something grabs you like that, you say, wait, what was the last thing you said? The bit about the pregnant woman whose home confinement was revoked and she was sent back to prison, what was that? I was upset by it from the beginning and so that’s what started this reporting.

Guernica: What is your sense of the reason why the Bureau of Prisons decided to send her back to prison when the halfway house responsible for monitoring her whereabouts was satisfied with her explanation? Is this kind of decision-making a pattern?

Roth: That is really the question. Why is the Bureau of Prisons violating people like Raquel for seemingly baseless—or “petty” is a word that comes up a lot—offences or even clerical errors? In Raquel’s case, the way advocates have put it to me was, here’s a woman who has a call log showing she called in to her halfway house. She works for a boss who has vouched for her, another colleague who has vouched for her. If there was a problem, why couldn’t she have just been given a warning? Why do they need to go to these lengths to reimprison a pregnant woman? It certainly sounds like everything they asked for checked out, so let’s just say that there is still some issue—why is this decision being made? It seems like pettiness to the advocates. Gwen Levi was in a police station taking a computer class and couldn’t answer her phone because her phone wasn’t able to ring inside this police headquarters. You’re going to send her back just because of that? That’s petty. I would like to hear from the Bureau: Who is making these decisions? What’s the hierarchy? Is Raquel’s fate being decided by someone at a regional level? Or is there one person in some central location who is deliberating? And why are they making these decisions? That’s the central question. And I can’t find anyone to give me an answer about how they’re getting to these decisions at the Bureau.

Guernica: Has the Justice Department been at all communicative with you?

Roth: No. No. And I’m still trying to follow up on the story and find out what’s happening, not only with Raquel, but with this cohort of federal inmates who are out on CARES Act home confinement. I’m trying to get to the decision makers who might be able to give me some answers on what they’re thinking right now, because I know there’s mounting frustration from all of the people that I’ve spoken with. There’s even a question as to whether this is penetrating to the Biden Administration, because there was a lot of hope and agitation for mass clemency. Folks I spoke to were confused as to why he couldn’t just grant blanket clemency to this group, for instance, because they had shown for the past year that they were capable of reintegrating successfully and that they weren’t a public safety risk. Why not do this?

Guernica: And has anyone in the administration responded to that question directly?

Roth: The Biden Administration keeps pointing to the fact that we are still in this pandemic and the emergency status is still in place and so therefore these inmates don’t have to worry, because as long as this emergency period exists, they are on home confinement. And advocates and people on home confinement say, “When does that end? Even though you’re saying we have some buffer, it doesn’t feel like we have any certainty, and we would like to know what’s happening.”

Guernica: What are some of the effects of this uncertainty on the lives of those who are on home confinement but could potentially return to prison?

Roth: One of the people I spoke to who is an advocate, for a conservative group, said it’s like having the sword of Damocles over your head. Folks I spoke to who are directly touched by it say living with the uncertainty is awful. They can’t live their lives the same way. Should they sign a lease on an apartment? Should they start a family? Can they promise their daughter that they’ll be there for graduation? It’s very difficult to live life the way you think you’re supposed to live life, not knowing if you’re going to be yanked back, not knowing if the US Marshals are going to knock on your door and take you back.

Guernica: There has been discussion lately of the surprising consensus between progressives and conservatives on a number of aspects of criminal justice reform. This home monitoring initiative is clearly one such aspect. Could you speak to how we came to a place where progressive groups and Chuck Grassley are pushing for the same thing?

Roth: One person I interviewed spoke at length about that, and part of it is a dollars and cents issue. Mass incarceration costs a lot of money. And are we getting a return on our investment? Are we any safer? That’s one way that conservatives are starting to really analyze whether there is a necessity for all of this incarceration. And there’s also, as I understand it, a movement, or perhaps a sensitivity or a compassion among evangelicals who are moved by the suffering of some when it comes to excessive sentences. So that, as it was explained to me, is how you bring conservatives and liberals to the same destination.

Guernica: We learn in the piece that when Raquel Esquivel was released for home confinement, she hadn’t seen her children in over three years. Why is that?

Roth: Before, she had been imprisoned in Texas and was able to see them, but later she was transferred to a facility in Minnesota, where she was something like 3,000 miles away from her children. Her children were back in Texas, and the distance is what made it impossible for her to see them. They couldn’t make that trip.

Guernica: I was so struck by the fact that her third child, Kaleb, was taken from her hours after the birth. I know she gave birth to him in shackles, a practice that was banned in 2018. Did she tell you anything about that birth? And do you know, if she does give birth in custody a second time, whether her baby will be allowed to remain with her?

Roth: I know for Raquel that it was traumatizing. I remember her telling me she was shaking all over. And that she didn’t get to breastfeed. She barely got to hold him. She remembers they did the tests that they needed to do on the baby and within hours he was gone.

At first her fiancé told me that she was potentially eligible for a program called MINT [Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together] which would allow her to give birth and stay with her child in the facility. But now Ricky, her fiancé, says she’s been denied for MINT; they have an attorney working on it but according to Ricky, whatever decision is going to be made has to be made by this Friday or she’s out of MINT-you can’t be past 37 weeks in MINT and she’s about to be past 37 weeks. And if that happens then Ricky says he’s going to pick up the baby as soon as the baby is born. From what Ricky has told me, their conversations end with him saying, I’ll be there and I’ll raise the child. He has a mother whom he’s very close to who will help him too. And he’s trying to get their home set up for the baby.

Guernica: How is she doing now?

Roth: She was just recently within the last few days transferred to a federal facility—Carswell—which is where Andrea Circle Bear was transferred while pregnant. Circle Bear got Covid there and died, after delivering her baby on a ventilator—the first female federal prisoner to die of Covid-19. So that’s terrifying for Raquel.

Guernica: Do you think changes from the Covid period will have lasting effects on the way people think about prisons and releases—in general and as related to public health—and the way the prison bureaucracy works?

Roth: It was a hope of many people I interviewed that Covid would provide an inflection point in the way we think about the prison system, and I think the concern is that people are moving on and that the opportunity for change is fading. I interviewed a sociologist from Columbia who I didn’t wind up quoting in the piece, but he was saying, you know, we all got a very, very, very, very small taste of what it felt like to lose our liberty when the pandemic started, and being incarcerated is orders of magnitude worse than that. I’m not sure whether there will be any real conversation around reimagining the prison system because it doesn’t seem to be happening.

Guernica: How did Raquel sound when you spoke with her?

Roth: I think one of the things that struck me most about my conversations with her was the last quotation she gave me, “I’ve done so much time, I know how to do it.” And that just was so sad to hear, that she’s a 37-year-old woman who managed to get a job, fall in love, reunite with her children and her family to the extent that everyone was in absolute tatters when she was taken back, and yet, what she knows how to do is time. She served 11 years, and I just felt a lot of compassion for her situation and for her and for her family. And she has done a lot of time.

Laura Dean

Laura Dean is a journalist who reports from the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Intercept among other publications. She grew up in Bahrain.

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