COVID allowed Raquel Esquivel and 4,500 others to be released from overcrowded federal prisons. So why is she back behind bars?

INSIDER: Jamie Roth; Aug 13, 2021, 7:59 AM


  • As COVID-19 spread through federal prisons, the Justice Department began a novel experiment: 4,500 prisoners were approved for home confinement with GPS ankle monitors.
  • But what would happen afterwards. If they rebuilt their lives and followed the rules, would they be able to stay out of prison?
  • One of them, Raquel Esquivel, seemingly did everything right – held down a job, bonded with her kids. Now, she’s back behind bars. And it’s not clear why. 

On May 8, 2020, Raquel Esquivel had just gotten home after serving 11 years in prison.

She stood outside her parents’ house in southwest Texas, waiting for her father to drive up with her three kids. The children had lived on and off with their dad and with Esquivel’s parents while she was held in a federal facility 1,200 miles away. She hadn’t seen them in over three years.

When the car finally pulled up, she watched her son Dain, now 17, and her 15-year-old daughter, Jordan, get out and run toward her. Her youngest, 11-year-old Kaleb, followed.

“It was surreal,” she would later say. “Dain was, like, ‘Mom, you look the same! You haven’t changed!’ I laughed. I said, “Well, you have changed so much.” He was now taller than his mom.

Esquivel took in her daughter. Jordan’s hair was wavy, and Esquivel thought she must’ve had it in braids the night before. She saw a tear in her daughter’s eye. “She was a young lady. I told her how beautiful she was.”

She and the kids posed for a photo. “I was just touching them,” Esquivel says. “I couldn’t stop touching them.”

‘Good luck! Do the right thing.’

As Covid cases spread through prisons across the country, Esquivel was told she was eligible for a transfer to home confinement, which would allow her to serve her sentence at home while she was being rigorously monitored. Under a directive set by the CARES Act, the Bureau of Prisons had screened its population of more than 150,000 prisoners for those with a high vulnerability to the coronavirus, who posed a low risk to public safety, and had a record of good conduct; 4,500 prisoners had been approved for home confinement. For the next year, Esquivel and the others would wear GPS ankle monitors and be strictly supervised by probation officers or halfway house personnel. It wasn’t clear what would happen afterwards.  

Esquivel was 37 years old and had about two years left on her 15-year sentence. Back in 2009, she had been locked up at the age of 26 for assisting a drug trafficker while she worked as a border-patrol agent (a charge she denies). 

Esquivel went into a mandatory quarantine to prepare for her release. Then, some 18 days later, she was escorted out of the Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca, Minnesota, and onto a Greyhound bus for a 28-hour trip home to Del Rio, Texas, a town of 35,000 on the Mexican border. Her first stop was the Dismas Charities Halfway House, where she met her case manager and got fitted with a GPS tracker. “Just a big ole box on my ankle,” she said.  But the annoyance was worth it if it meant getting home to her kids.

As she headed out, her new case manager wished her well. “I don’t foresee any problems with you,” Esquivel remembers him saying. “He was like, ‘Good luck!  Do the right thing.'”

‘We want this to be successful’

The home-confinement experiment of the past year has been remarkably successful. Of the 4,500 participants, just three were arrested for new crimes and, of the three, only one for a violent crime. That’s lower than the typical rate of recidivism. 

And yet even as prison-reform advocates have held the experiment up as a model, nearly everyone with time left on their sentences is expected to return to prison. A Justice Department memo issued on Jan. 15, just before President Donald Trump left office, says that once the COVID-19 emergency period is lifted, the Bureau of Prisons must “recall the prisoners to correctional facilities” to finish their sentences. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration planned to uphold the directive. 

On April 15, 2021, Michael Carvajal, the head of the federal Bureau of Prisons, was brought before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the response to the coronavirus.  

“Now I want to go to home confinement,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican. “It’s been a very vital tool to decrease the prison population during COVID and is successful in monitoring inmates.” 

Wouldn’t a forced return to prison run counter to criminal-justice reform; that is, to ensure public safety, reduce recidivism, and not further burden the taxpayer, the senator wanted to know. “Is there any policy reason that inmates in home confinement … should be returned to Bureau of Prison facilities if they have not violated the terms of their release or committed a new crime,” Grassely wondered. 

“Great question, Senator,” Carvajal began. “We want this to be successful. It’s the entire mission of the Bureau of Prisons to return people to society. So, I don’t know why people believe that we are somehow against this. I will say that we do it responsibly.”

As the debate drags on, prisoners in home confinement have been left to wonder when, and even if, they’ll be locked up again. 

“These people are asking, ‘Will I get separated from my family? When?” said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “Should I get a lease on a home? Can I enroll in school? Can I do anything?’ They’re trying to reintegrate, but they can’t.”

‘Who over there was not doing their job?’

Finding work as a felon — and as one who wears an ankle monitor — is challengingespecially during the pandemic. But a week after her homecoming, Esquivel lucked into a job. Her cousin’s wife was working for a company that drills wells, T Bar Drilling, and the owner needed a bookkeeper.

Esquivel knew how to crunch numbers and manage data entry. Her boss, LuAnn Hutto, would have to keep close tabs on her and allow Esquivel to call the halfway house throughout the work day. “They knew everything that she did and where she went,” Hutto said in an interview.

Esquivel was more blunt. “It was a real pain in the ass,” she said. “I’d have to call every time I would get somewhere, and I’d have to call every time I would leave for somewhere.”

Esquivel phoned Dismas faithfully, but felt irritated that Dismas didn’t have the best record keeping. She counted at least five instances when she called Dismas to report her location, only to have the front desk ring her again a short time later, unaware she’d already touched base. “Well, they didn’t log you in, so let me log you in,” the person would say.

These interactions left Esquivel rattled. “It pissed me off,” she said. “Who over there was not doing their job and getting away with it?”

Her older sister, Lizzy Croy, remembers the mounting frustration: “You get angry because she was following every rule.”

Dismas Charities, which is headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, did not respond to multiple inquiries from Insider about Esquivel’s case and the allegations she has made against them. 

The record-keeping issue was more than a source of annoyance for Esquivel. The accountability calls were what allowed her to stay out of prison. The halfway houses were contracted by the prison bureau. If one of their charges was missing — or if their records said the person was missing — it would be treated as an escape.

In fact, 26 of Esquivel’s home-confinement peers have already been returned to prison for these very transgressions.

‘Everything flowed’ 

As her home confinement continued, Esquivel would occasionally get an Essential Needs Pass from Dismas Charities that allowed her to step outside her sanctioned routine for two hours to shop at Walmart. She never got to go to Kaleb’s doctor appointments or Jordan’s volleyball games, but buying food and hygiene products was permitted if she got a pass.

“Even if it was just Walmart,” Esquivel says, it felt liberating to have a few hours of normality to walk through a crowded store with her kids.

On one such outing, she was with Dain and Jordan and they ended up picking out pairs of identical Mickey Mouse pajamas. She remembers the three of them clowning around in the store aisles, laughing over the matching outfits. It was awesome, she says, just to watch how close the kids had become. “They’re each other’s backbones and best friends.”

It was harder with Kaleb. She was already incarcerated when he was born. He’d been taken from her arms hours after the delivery so that he could go to live with Esquivel’s parents.

Now that Esquivel was home, Kaleb called her mom, but he ran to his grandparents when he needed something. “They had been mom and dad in my absence,” Esquivel says. She was grateful to her parents, but felt a deep sadness in the moments when she recognized the distance between herself and her son. She tried to be patient with Kaleb, playing the appreciative audience for his bicycle tricks and the easy opponent in chess matches. “I have to think and believe that in time he’ll come to me,” she says.

It was around this time, as Esquivel was rebuilding her relationships with her kids, that she met Ricky Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, 39, had recently moved back to Del Rio after 18 years in San Antonio, and he sent Esquivel a friend request on Facebook. Soon, they were texting.

“I was just recently released from federal prison,” Esquivel wrote him last year on July 3, in their very first text exchange, which the couple shared with Insider. “I am starting over as well, but God is good and I am very blessed.”

Texts graduated to phone calls, and then to longer phone calls. “It was like high school,” Gonzalez says. “We would stay on the phone till 2, 3 in the morning. I was really drawn to her. I was in.”

They had their first date on Gonzalez’s birthday. Since Esquivel couldn’t go anywhere, she invited him to her mom’s house for strawberry cheesecake, his favorite. She hadn’t bought any new clothes for herself since getting home from prison so she wore old athletic shorts and a T-shirt and waited outside for his car to pull up.

When Gonzalez arrived, she smiled at his effort. “The shoes and the shirt matched,” she said.

“I must’ve changed four or five times,” Gonzalez admitted. “I wanted that day to be special. I was crazy nervous and so excited.”

Finally face to face, it took a few moments for them to adjust to each other. Their connection, so comfortable and fluid on the phone, felt new again. 

“The butterflies and all that good stuff,” Gonzalez says now. “I do remember we couldn’t say nothing to each other, but I’ve never smiled so much in my life. The back of my ears hurt so much from all the smiling.”

Esquivel remembers it the same way. It was “kinda slow at first,” she says, but as the hours passed, “everything flowed.”

Nights outside at her mom’s house became their ritual. “I couldn’t see another day without her,” Gonzalez says.

‘Now is the moment’ 

Home confinement came into existence in 1986 as a sentencing alternative and to relieve overcrowding in cases where individuals were nearing the end of their sentences. 

Recently, the Justice Department has come under fire because PATTERN, the analysis tool for determining home confinement eligibility and the risk of recidivism, had been found to be discriminatory. “It shows a stunning bias in terms of the number of African Americans versus the number of whites who seem to qualify,” Sen. Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat, said when questioning prison director Carvajal at the April 15 hearing. Carvajal responded that the issue had been addressed and that the tool undergoes yearly review by the Justice Department.

For Kevin Ring, the prison reform advocate, the feasibility of a mass release to home confinement during a pandemic “showed that we had thousands of people in prison who didn’t need to be there.” 

“The fact that you can find thousands to release who are so low risk, and they can be monitored successfully without committing crimes, shows us that we’re locking up too many people for too long. This is the most obvious evidence. Normally, you’d be speculating. Now, we had to let them out, and we were proved right,” he said.  

The debate over re-incarcerating this group has brought together advocates from diverse political perspectives.

“We all are paying for incarceration that isn’t buying us any more public safety,” said David Safavian, the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Nolan Center for Justice. “It’s exhibit A of what’s wrong with bureaucracy.”

The fact that you can find thousands to release who are so low risk, and they can be monitored successfully without committing crimes, shows us that we’re locking up too many people for too long.

Other advocates call the impending re-incarceration flat-out dangerous because of severe prison staffing shortages that go as far back as 2005. The president of the union representing 30,000 federal prison workers said, in a letter to the Senate, that the understaffing “creates a clear and present danger to every employee, inmate, and the community at large.” Additionally, the thousands of vacant jobs makes the “response to the COVID-19 pandemic nearly impossible.”

Meanwhile, the risk of COVID remains. The virus has sickened 50,000 federal prisoners and staff and killed 246 of them. (If you add state facilities, the number is even more stark: nearly 3,000 prisoners and staff have died from the virus and half a million got sick, according to a study by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press.) 

Prisoners are 5 times more likely than the general population to catch COVID-19 partly because the virus spreads more than twice as fast  behind bars with inmates living in close confinement and unable to consistently access quality medical care or PPE. The population is also more vulnerable. Chronic illness plagues 40% of prisoners. The same communities of color that have suffered most from COVID-19 are also over-represented in prison.

Decreasing the number of prisoners was considered essential at the beginning of the pandemic, and prison reform advocates hoped the home confinement experiment could be a catalyst for long-sought reforms.

“Now is the moment,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, the director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy organization that’s advocated for sentencing and prison reform. But with the threat of re-incarceration looming, Eisen worried “if this moment really is a moment, and if it’s going to amount to anything.”

For the families of crime victims, the analysis is different. 

“I just don’t get their argument,” said Richard Pompelio, the director of the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center.  “You let us go home because of the pandemic, and when the microscope was on us, we were smart enough not to commit a crime, and therefore we shouldn’t go back? I don’t accept that. I don’t think that’s fair at all.”

As Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, asked during the Senate Judiciary hearing, should those with years left on their sentences “now stay on home confinement just because they had the good fortune to be released to it during the pandemic?”

‘His bosses in Mexico’ 

As Esquivel put her life back together, no one wanted to talk about prison.  

On Valentine’s Day, Ricky proposed. The ring was engraved with both their names and two hearts crossing. “I had this epic speech, but I went blank,” he laughed. Esquivel said yes. 

More good news followed. He and Esquivel were expecting a son, due in October. 

Prison hovered in the background. Esquivel would bring it up occasionally, especially when she wanted to make a point to her kids about consequences and repercussions.

Her legal troubles had begun in 2007, when she was 23 and raising Dain and Jordan as a single mother. Kaleb hadn’t been born yet. One day, at the movies, she saw an ad for the US Border Patrol during the previews. The promise of stability and good benefits appealed to her, and she liked the idea of it — the outdoors, the challenge. “I think I can do this,” she told herself.

She was sworn in as an agent the next year, in 2008.

A year later, federal agents were knocking on her door. As prosecutors would allege, an old high-school acquaintance had paid her for information that helped him move marijuana across the Mexican border. Esquivel fought the accusation in court, and she denies it to this day.

Her sister, Lizzy Croy, said the whole family dismissed the charges as bogus. She insists the smuggler pointed the finger at Esquivel in exchange for a shorter sentence. “Kelly was a total square,” Croy said, using her sister’s nickname. “She never wanted to mess anything up.”

Court documents say Esquivel had an “intimate relationship” with the drug trafficker and “provided him with information on highways and roads to use or avoid, locations of sensors, and areas and times patrols and local authorities would be working.”  Information he shared “with his bosses in Mexico.” 

When Esquivel was convicted and sentenced to 15 years, “it was plastered all over the papers, and everywhere,” Croy said. “It was really hard.”

‘We’re here to get you’

In mid-May, Esquivel was on her way home from her job at T Bar Drilling when her phone rang. It was Dismas Charities telling her to report to the halfway house in an hour. She’d have to pack a bag, too, because she would stay there pending the outcome of an investigation.

Esquivel had never gotten a call like this from Dismas. She panicked and dialed her family. “I was, like, “Hey, y’all need to come home. Just get home.” 

Everyone gathered at the home of Esquivel’s parents. “My mom was, like, ‘It’s gonna be fine, it’s gonna be fine,’ but she was crying,” Esquivel remembers.

Jordan helped her pack while Dain lingered in the room. “Kaleb was with my parents. He was upset,” she says.

Esquivel felt frantic as she headed for the door. She climbed into the car with Gonzalez and her two older kids. Kaleb stayed behind. “Where’s mommy going?” they heard him ask again and again as they pulled away.

In the ride over, the kids tried to fill the silence, chatting about a car Dain wanted to buy, but Esquivel couldn’t focus. 

A few minutes later, they reached Dismas.

“The kids carried my bag. They wanted to walk in with me,” she says. But she couldn’t bring them inside. She hugged each one at the front door and went in alone.

Esquival learned that she was under investigation and that Dismas was accusing her of leaving her job at T Bar Drilling on March 4, a Thursday, without calling or getting authorization from Dismas staff. Her ankle monitor records her “leaving her place of employment” at 11:02 in the morning and driving near the Mexican border, incident reports say.

It was a route that Esquival had taken before and cleared with Dismas. She clicked through her phone log for calls she had made on that day to Dismas staff. There they were. She showed the caseworker. (A subsequent report by the Department of Justice noted that she might have had cell phone service issues.) 

Hutto, her boss, and another coworker vouched for her, too. They told Dismas they had been with Esquival that day, on a site visit, and both remembered her calling the center as they travelled between jobs. Hutto was incensed. “When we got to every location and left every location, we called. And we don’t mind. She does it, she knows what she has to do, and she always does it.”

Her defense was enough for Dismas, Esquival said, and the manager told her they wouldn’t recommend any punishment. But the Bureau of Prisons had the final say. (Neither Dismas nor the Bureau of Prisons agreed to answer questions about the case.)

The next morning at Dismas, Esquivel busied herself as she waited for the bureau’s ruling. She texted Ricky: “About to shower and get ready for the day. Hope you have a good day.”

“Okay, love you,” he wrote back.

A short time later, Esquivel was doing her laundry, pulling clothes out of the dryer, when someone told her to come upstairs. She found federal agents, three of them, waiting by the front door.

“They were, like, ‘We’re here to get you,'” she remembers. “I’m, like, ‘Here to get me? What? Why? No.'”

The bureau had ruled. They’d believed the Dismas call log over Esquivel’s word, her call log, and her colleagues’ statements. Not only that, the bureau labelled the violation “like a technical escape,” a high-level offense. (A bureau spokesman declined to answer questions about Esquivel’s case, and how the decision was reached, because it does not comment on individual cases.) 

Esquivel’s home confinement was revoked immediately. She was going back to prison, that very moment. “And then I started crying,” she said.

She was allowed one phone call to her family before being escorted  to the county lockup, Val Verde Correctional. 

‘Holding it all in’

Now, when Esquivel wants to talk to her family, she calls them from a large open room inside Val Verde Correctional. Her words echo against the white cinder block walls. It’s hardly an ideal place to talk.

“The baby is kicking,” she told Gonzalez during a call in early July. Esquivel knows the Bureau of Prisons will move her at some point, but she hasn’t been told where or when. She has no idea where her son will be born.

It’s the worst kind of déjà vu. Eleven years ago, the night before she heard her guilty verdict, Esquivel learned that she was pregnant with Kaleb. Nine months later, she delivered him in custody. “Back then, you had to be in cuffs,” she said. (The practice was banned in 2018.)

Her mother and father and Croy, her older sister, arrived at the hospital when she went into labor. Just a few hours after the delivery, she watched as they whisked Kaleb away. “I barely held him,” she said. “I never got to nurse him. You hear him crying, and that’s about it.”

“It was tough.” She’s silent for a moment. “It still is.”

Gonzalez has been working from the outside. He recruited an advocate to appeal Esquivel’s violation and file paperwork for Compassionate Release, and clemency advocates have joined the cause, too. Over the past few days, an online petition to free Esquivel has gotten over 26,000 signatures.

Sometimes, Gonzalez sits alone in the apartment that he and Esquivel leased together just days before she got locked up. He makes video diaries, recording his thoughts into his camera phone, and imagines Esquivel eventually getting the chance to watch them. 

“I’m trying to set this place up for when you and the baby come home,” he says into the camera, one day in May.  

He looks away from the camera, then back again. 

“I just been holding it all in, my feelings in,” he tells Esquivel, or tries to tell her. “I love you. I miss you. I need you.” His words reverberate through the empty apartment and come to rest inside his phone.

At night in Esquivel’s cell, it’s mostly quiet. She passes the time reading psalms. She thinks about God and wants to feel like she has a protector.

In the year of her home confinement, she lived the way she thought she was supposed to live – reuniting with her family, holding down a job, starting fresh. For herself and her peers, the 4,500 transferred to home confinement during the pandemic, she feels anguish for the uncertainty of their situation. “I just think it’s wrong,” she says. “After you’ve proven yourself.”

More than anything, she wants to return to her children and reassure them that she’ll never get taken away again. Her release date is March 1. “I’ve done so much time,” she says. “I know how to do it.”


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