Chalana McFarland, sentenced to 30 years in prison for mortgage fraud, left a federal prison in Florida on Monday with 10 years yet to serve. She will complete her sentence on home confinement, all the while wearing a hefty ankle monitor to track her movements.
After being under prison-wide lockdown for nearly two months and fearing the worst, she said, she feels unspeakably grateful to have left prison without contracting COVID-19, which has killed more than 500 inmates in prisons, jails, and detention centers across the nation, according to database created and maintained by the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law.
For the world outside of federal prisons, McFarland’s release is unusual, not only because a low percentage of prisoners have gotten out early during the coronavirus pandemic, but because the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has been secretive about who is released to home confinement.
Celebrity inmates such as Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, cohorts of President Donald Trump, garnered publicity recently when they were released early to home confinement without serving even half of their sentences.
But the situation for inmates like McFarland is generally shrouded in mystery.
The Florida Phoenix — which has been writing extensively about secrecy in prison culture and conditions behind prison walls — contacted McFarland and a few other federal prisoners with the help of inmate advocacy groups and hundreds of pages of records filed in a series of lawsuits on behalf of inmates.
Before the FBI busted her, McFarland, now 52, was a lawyer, educated in Florida and Georgia. She’s been living in home confinement in Atlanta since Tuesday.
Rufus Rochell, 68, one of the thousands of black men sentenced to long prison terms on drug charges when the “war on drugs” was at its peak, was released to home confinement in April and now lives with his sister and brother-in-law in Micanopy, south of Gainesville.
Chad Marks, 41, incarcerated on drug charges, was near the front of the line to be released and was sitting out a 14-day precautionary quarantine when the prosecutor in his case objected at the 11th hour. Marks, communicating with the Florida Phoenix through the prison email system, said his family had been waiting for him in the parking lot.
Those incidents reflect confusing episodes and changing rules on who gets out and who stays in, according to interviews with the inmates, court records and prison advocates.
How do federal inmates get out during the pandemic?
The early releases relate to expanded powers granted to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons by Congress in the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to reduce infections and deaths from COVID-19.
In two memos to the BOP, U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed prisons to use those expanded powers to expedite release of inmates deemed at elevated risk of contracting the disease and posing low risks to public safety. To avoid spreading the virus from prisons to communities, inmates must first complete 14-day quarantines. Barr directs the U.S. Department of Justice, which governs the Bureau of Prisons.
The BOP reports it has released more than 4,000 inmates under the CARES Act and during the coronavirus pandemic, but inmate advocates and civil-rights organizations say that is only a fraction of the population that should have been released by now.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has killed 80 inmates and one prison employee, and it has infected approximately 6,000 others, according to federal prison data. The actual extent of the infection is not known because only 10 percent of the inmate population (now at 163,000) had been tested, BOP Director Michael Carvajal said June 2 in testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
In his prepared remarks, Carvajal stated, “It should go without saying that while we are dedicated to the protection of our inmates’ health and safety, we also have to consider — as the attorney general’s guidance emphasized — that inmates who presented a risk of public safety because of their criminal acts or other factors cannot be released.”
In McFarland’s release, her case manager at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex’s low-security women’s camp in Florida told her on April 8 that she had been deemed eligible for release to home confinement because she has medical vulnerabilities (asthma, high blood pressure, sickle-cell disease); had completed well more than half her sentence; and was considered no risk to public safety.
She left Coleman on Monday accompanied by her now-grown daughter, who was 4 when McFarland went to prison, and her parents, who raised the girl in her absence. They drove to a halfway house in Atlanta, where corrections officers clamped on her ankle monitor, and then to her family home in Atlanta, where she now lives under home confinement.
She said many inmates are in danger of dying of COVID-19, although she believes many pose no threat to society by completing their sentences at home, rather than in prisons where it is nearly impossible to avoid the virus indefinitely.
“Not as many are getting out as should be,” McFarland said. “But the Bureau of Prisons is a big machine that doesn’t adapt easily.”
She suspects there are too few case managers to process all the early releases authorized during the pandemic.
The spread of coronavirus in prisons intensifies the need to rethink criminal justice and incarceration, McFarland said, arguing that tens of thousands of non-violent offenders in prison should be in supervised programs in their communities, where they can work, learn, and support their families, McFarland said.
“People need to realize the inmates were not sentenced to death,” McFarland said. “COVID can’t be contained, so they have to reduce the inmate population. There has been some new thinking and there needs to be more.”
In Rufus Rochell’s case, he was imprisoned for 32 years at Coleman’s low-security men’s unit, and with eight years to go, he was released to home confinement in April. He still will be in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. At age 68, he is considered quite elderly by prison standards.
“It is scary in there,” Rochell said. “You’re locked in a closed environment, and they never gave me hand sanitizer, not the first bottle, not one.”
Amy Povah, an advocate for Rochell’s release, contends Rochell qualified long ago under laws that Congress authorized to dial back drug sentences now considered excessive. Still, he remained incarcerated until April, when prison officials finally released him under authority specifically expanded under the CARES Act and endorsed by Barr to curb infections and deaths from COVID-19.
Chad Marks, 41, was sentenced to 40 years in prison on narcotics charges and possession of a firearm, won a court-ordered sentence reduction, and has served 14 years. The judge who sentenced him and later cut his sentence by half wrote a letter for Marks also recommending clemency upon release, citing his reformed behavior and myriad commendations for completing and later teaching educational and rehabilitative programs in prison.
Marks was deemed eligible for early release upon completing a two-week quarantine to monitor him for any signs of COVID-19, but he did not go home.
“I sat in quarantine for 14 days. My family drove nine hours to pick me up. I was able to wave to them and them to me. Five minutes before my release I was sent back inside the prison, as the prosecutor … filed for a stay at the last minute,” Marks wrote by email. He said he believes prosecutors oppose congressional efforts to release inmates early.
The number of inmates eligible for release depends on how prison officials set the criteria for the percentage of sentence served; an inmate’s potential risk to the public; and other factors.
Under Barr’s directives and other Department of Justice and BOP guidelines, medically vulnerable inmates who rank “minimum” as to their risk to the public, and high on chronic health impairments (but not COVID-19 infection), were given priority for release.
But the percentage of time they must have completed has varied over the months. Inmate advocates insist that vulnerable inmates with a low public risk score and sufficient time served should be released early, too, but that’s not happening.
The Bureau of Prisons has been all over the map in responding to coronavirus, said Povah, executive director of the inmate-advocate Can-Do Foundation and a white-collar felon who was in prison for 24 years, released, and granted clemency.
Povah stressed that Congress expanded the bureau’s existing powers to release select inmates to home confinement; that Barr issued memos directing the bureau to expedite releases; and that advocates for inmate rights and civil rights have been filing lawsuits demanding that those powers be used to keep low-security, medically vulnerable inmates alive.
And yet, fewer than 3 percent have been released, according to the limited data that the BOP has released.
Lawsuits over the situation rage on, with judges in Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and other jurisdictions reaching different conclusions about the courts’ authority to tell the prisons what to do.
“It’s been helter-skelter across the system,” Povah said. “It’s been very subjective and, sadly, some [prison officials] favor high-profile cases over an average prisoner who does not have special standing.
“We are not seeing releases consistent with the Barr memos. They bucked the Barr memos, in our opinion.”
At the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law, professor Sharon Dolovich agrees with Povah.
Her team tracks data across the country demonstrating wide disparities in behavior among corrections facilities during the pandemic.
The team tracks COVID-19 infections and deaths in federal prisons, state prisons, county jails, immigration detention centers, juvenile detention facilities, and other places of incarceration. Dolovich said her team is certain the infection numbers are underreported and will soon be able to prove it.
“If there really was universal testing, the numbers would be much higher,” she said. “Some facilities are failing to report them.”
The UCLA Law database also tracks class-action and individual lawsuits seeking early releases and the number of inmate releases reported by the incarcerating agencies. It reveals a patchwork of outcomes. Dolovich sees evidence that the criminal justice system in the United States is badly broken and stubbornly trying to conceal its flaws.
“There’s a toxic culture of secrecy in the prisons,” Dolovich said, referring broadly to prisons and jails of all kinds and not specifically to federal prisons.
“They believe they have license to fail to provide the information people need to know.”