30 Jun Technical Violation Sends 74-Year-Old Gwen Levi Back to Prison
Gwen Levi received a 33-year prison sentence for her role in illegal drug distribution. At the time, she was already in her late 50s and a survivor of lung cancer. Last year, the Bureau of Prisons released Levi to home confinement as part of the CARES Act. She was eligible due to her age and history of health issues. Now, as COVID-19 infection rates slow throughout the United States, Levi is back behind bars. For some, she is one more example of how technical parole violations drive mass incarceration in America.
Legislators intended for the CARES Act to reduce prison populations during the pandemic.
As COVID-19 swept the country in 2020, the Center for Disease Control warned of potential superspreader events. Prisons were particularly vulnerable because large populations live in confined spaces with poor ventilation and limited access to healthcare. Those fears were realized as more than 20% of incarcerated people tested positive for coronavirus. At one point, people in prison were more than four times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population. That’s why the CARES Act included a provision to reduce prison populations.
Legislators attempted to use the CARES Act to help slow the spread of coronavirus among the American prison population. However, the BOP was slow to implement changes. Even worse, the Department of Justice under the Trump Administration ordered that thousands released to home confinement should return to prison when the pandemic subsides. Some were hopeful that President Joe Biden would reverse the order when he took office. The ACLU, for example, called to keep those released on home confinement for the remainder of their sentences. Unfortunately, the Biden Administration has yet to signal any intent to extend home confinement.
Holly Harris, president of Justice Action Network, voiced the frustration that many on home confinement feel about the lack of clarity from President Biden: “It’s so frustrating for me that the answer that we keep getting from the administration is we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, when the emergency is over. It’s so tone-deaf and cruel.”
Gwen Levi is returning to prison after failing to answer her phone during class.
Gwen Levi pleaded guilty to a charge of intent to distribute in 2005. She was 58 years old at the time and a lung cancer survivor. Despite her plea, the judge sentenced Levi to 33 years behind bars. Some have argued this amounts to a life sentence. Levi’s record includes two prior drug convictions, one in 1984 and one in 1996, which the judge used to justify the sentence. Given her age and health condition, Levi was one of the thousands to leave prison under the CARES Act in 2020.
Levi moved in with her 94-year-old mother as part of the conditions for home confinement. Since then, she has been working to re-establish relationships with her family, advocating for incarcerated people and even looking for a job. As part of her effort to reenter society, Levi enrolled in a computer skills course. When she attended the class, authorities received notice that she was not at her approved address. Levi did not answer her phone during the class, which the FBI is using to justify sending her back to prison.
According to Sapna Mirchandani, Levi’s public defender, “There’s no question [Levi] was in class. As I was told, because she could have been robbing a bank, they’re going to treat her as if she was robbing a bank.”
Despite a nearly spotless record during her time behind bars, Gwen Levi now awaits a transfer back to prison in a Washington, D.C. jail. “I feel like I was attempting to do all the right things,” she lamented. “Breaking rules is not who I am. I tried to explain what happened, and to tell the truth. At no time did I think I wasn’t supposed to go to that class. I apologize to my mother and my family for what this is doing to them.”
Home confinement during the pandemic proved safe and effective for communities.
According to a judiciary hearing, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Michael Carvajal explained that the BOP released approximately 7,000 incarcerated people as a direct result of the CARES Act. According to Carvajal, authorities arrested just three individuals on home confinement under the CARES Act for committing new crimes during home confinement. In other words, there is no strong evidence to suggest that home confinement is a risk to public safety. Despite this, as Senator Chuck Grassley noted during the hearing, more than 4,000 people released to home confinement were scheduled to return to prison when the CARES Act expires.
Technical violations are a major contributor to mass incarceration in American prisons.
While Levi’s situation is heartbreaking, it is far from unique. In fact, technical violations account for almost 100,000 people entering prison every single day. By some estimates, more than one quarter of those entering the justice system at any given time are returning as a result of technical violations. These violations are non-violent. In most cases, they include things like missed meetings with a supervising officer or a failure to pay fees on time. Unfortunately, this is enough to put people back behind bars, sometimes for years.
Overcrowding in prisons remains a problem, especially as the new Delta variant of the coronavirus takes hold in American communities. According to the Center for Disease Control, the Delta variant is more infectious, already accounting for more than 10% of COVID-19 cases. With incarcerated people and prison staff still wary about the vaccine, the variant could create new superspreader events in United States prisons.
Outside prison, doctors would characterize Gwen Levi as extremely vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 due to her age and history with lung cancer. Despite the very real threat of serious illness, she now awaits her return to federal prison. With years remaining on her sentence, Levi may never regain her freedom. Ironically, Levi alluded to her return weeks before the FBI arrested her for the technical violation.
“I’m not afraid. I know it’s a possibility. But In my heart of hearts, I just don’t think that they are going to send us back. My plea is that we don’t get sent back…I’m trying to be the example, to say ‘this is why you shouldn’t send us back. The purpose that we were sent to prison for has been achieved,’” Levi told her interviewer.