After spending years behind bars, the pandemic has allowed thousands of prisoners to reunite with their loved ones in home confinement. But is it short-lived?
Many inmates who were released claim they’ve built new lives and are contributing to society, as they wait for a decision from the government.
One of those anxiously waiting for a decision is Jeffrey Wingate, who has learned never to take anything for granted--not his family, and certainly not his freedom. For 20 years, he did everything with Jan, the love of his life. Jan was there to help him battle and beat two rounds of cancer.
But there was a secret Wingate held onto, up until it was too late. He admits he was using more pills than was prescribed to him.
“I was taking 30 oxycodone pills a day to alleviate the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. The pain was so unbearable I probably would have committed suicide,” he recalled.
Wingate wanted more than his doctor prescribed, so he started buying them illegally and selling them to friends until the feds caught on. After a week behind bars, he saw Jan for the first time.
“To look through that window and tell her that everything she heard was true was pretty tough,” Wingate said.
For six years, Wingate sat behind bars. He got treatment for his rheumatoid arthritis, and he overcame the drug dependency.
That wasn’t all. Wingate also earned three degrees. Those degrees were all aimed at one goal: to help those behind bars that seemed to have lost all hope.
“Until you see the face of someone with no hope in prison, you have never seen happiness. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I had the chance to help more than one. I live for it.”
Wingate was still locked up in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the United States. That’s when his freedom, of sorts, came earlier than he expected. The Attorney General of the United States told the federal prison system to give low-risk inmates at-home detention, tying it to the CARES Act.
Since his home release last year, Wingate has begun to re-establish the time he lost with his family. He has taken back his “dad chores” around the house, fixing things and mowing lawns. He has also taken a part-time job at a law firm as a researcher.
But all that might change. In January of this year, former Attorney General William Barr issued a memo saying the Federal Bureau of Prisons should recall 7,000 prisoners, including Wingate. The final decision could be made later this year by the board of prisons.
“To send them back, I don’t know how we could do anything crueler,” said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, a Washington D.C.-based organization that advocates for the rights of prisoners and their families. “It certainly won’t make us safer; it will cost us more money and it will really hurt families.”
Statistics from 2017 show a prisoner in confinement costs the government nearly $35,000 a year compared to the nearly $4,500 when in home confinement.
According to Ring, these people are not entirely free. He says they would certainly rather be in home confinement than prison, but they all have ankle monitors on. Every move they make is tracked and so there is still deprivation of their liberty. He says they’re allowed to go to work, but they must submit schedules ahead of time and they must get drug tested.
Victim advocate groups believe home release under the CARES Act saved thousands of lives.
Some of the biggest proponents keeping certain inmates at home are the exact same people that put them behind bars.
“This is setting aside how we felt as a government official. We had people in our care that we had to ensure survived. They are criminals, but they are people. I would tell my prosecutors all the time you cannot take the humanity out of what we do,” said Justin Herdman, a former US attorney for the northern district of Ohio.
“Sending people back to prison that are making their transition--there are duties that we’ve picked up, contributing to house. Take us back out of the loop, it’s almost pure evil.”
But it’s something Wingate is ready to face.
Wingate’s fate will come down to how current Attorney General Merrick Garland feels or if President Biden or Congress steps in.
FAMM sent out a plea to Garland and President Biden. US Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, also sent a letter to Garland, siding with people like Wingate.
So, for now, thousands of prisoners and their families are forced to just sit and wait.
We asked for interviews with the representative and senators who represent the area where Wingate lives: Congressman Andy Barr and Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.
None of them returned our request for comment.