In a letter dated April 15, Craig Cesal wrote, “I face too high of a risk for death which was not my sentence.” Cesal is 60 years old, diabetic, and suffers from lung blockage. Now incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institution, Terre Haute (FCI Terre Haute) in Vigo County, Indiana, during a global pandemic, he faces an even more dire threat to his health. Cesal has been serving a life sentence on a marijuana charge since 2002, but earlier this month he was recommended for an early release to home confinement due to his vulnerability to COVID-19. Weeks later, Cesal remains confined in FCI Terre Haute.

As reported by Prism, incarcerated activists and whistleblowers have been targets of retaliation during the pandemic, typically finding themselves locked in solitary confinement after speaking out against prison conditions and health risks. However, allies who have been advocating on behalf of Cesal are arguing that the denial of early release is also being used as a pushback tactic against those who have been advocating for their medical needs and personal safety. 

At the federal level, policy has shifted to allow for early release of incarcerated people like Cesal during the pandemic. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress on March 27 includes recommendations on how to reduce the federal prison population. In late March, Attorney General William Barr issued a directive granting directors of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) the authority to grant early release to home confinement for certain detainees. Those deemed eligible for early release include those over 60 years old, those on minimum or low custody, and those who have no record of violence or misconduct during their incarceration. However, prison facility leadership are the ones who make the final determination of who can be released.

Advocates from Walk 4 Change, a grassroots criminal justice group focused on ending marijuana prohibition, have been working to amplify Cesal’s story. They say he has long faced retaliation for speaking out about his experiences at FCI Terre Haute. Those experiences have included being denied insulin and facing physical and verbal abuse from facility staff. In the past, that whistleblowing has led him to be thrown into the facility’s security housing unit, or solitary confinement.

This time however, retaliation is standing in the way of his only avenue to freedom. In his April 15 letter, Cesal wrote that FCI Terre Haute Warden Brian Lammer told Cesal that while BOP’s North Central regional director had recommended him for early release, Lammer decided to block it. He says that Lammer justified his decision by saying that he discovered Cesal was using a wire to heat water in his cell, a facility violation he claims makes Cesal too dangerous for early release. Advocates at Walk 4 Change say Cesal has had no violent incidents while inside and is already on minimum security, which underscores the fact that he poses no threat to the public. Cesal maintains that Lammer has blocked his release not out of any real concern about his dangerousness, but as retribution for Cesal speaking out about the conditions in FCI Terre Haute to outside allies.

Advocates for Cesal are calling upon their network to contact the attorney general and ask that he review Cesal’s case and override the warden’s decision. The timeframe for action is narrowing as recent changes at FCI Terre Haute have created a new sense of urgency for releasing medically vulnerable people incarcerated in the facility.

Earlier this month, FCI Terre Haute was named a new intake center for 125 incarcerated people coming from surrounding communities and facilities in the region. While Vigo County, Indiana, only has 69 confirmed cases of COVID-19, these new detainees will be coming from jails and prisons in larger areas like Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Illinois, including one prison in Chicago where numerous people have already tested positive.

FCI Terre Haute’s protocol has been to quarantine incoming incarcerated people for two weeks in the same cell block, but this may not be enough. Cesal says that some of these new incoming people are starting to be placed in his cell block and he fears that they will easily spread COVID-19 because many of them are younger and more likely to be asymptomatic carriers of the disease. The likelihood that these new detainees could bring the virus into the facility coupled with the vulnerability of currently incarcerated people like Cesal who have serious preexisting medical conditions creates an environment where he fears that a COVID-19 outbreak could easily occur. In the April 15 letter, Cesal shared that these new detainees are still interacting with the same officers as the rest of the prison’s population.

While FCI Terre Haute has reportedly received funds under the CARES Act for personal protective equipment, medical equipment, testing, funding overtime for employees, and cleaning facilities, advocates at Walk 4 Change are skeptical  about whether that money is actually being used to make the facility safer. Cesal notes that bleach and sanitizer have yet to be dispensed. Additionally, since April 1, FCI Terre Haute and other BOP facilities have been under “enhanced modified operations,” or what Cesal describes as lockdown. According to the BOP, enhanced modified operations aim to maximize social distancing and minimize group gatherings by allowing incarcerated people to only access necessities like the commissary, laundry, showers, telephones, electronic messaging, and healthcare services. At FCI Terre Haute, Cesal says this allows a two-hour period per day where incarcerated people can spend time outside of their cells. During this time, he says they routinely come into contact with phones, email terminals, handrails, and door knobs that are not properly disinfected.

Ultimately, the primary goal of Cesal and his advocates is to reopen a pathway for his release, but they are also sounding the alarm that denial of home confinement might be used in other facilities as a means to dissuade incarcerated people from sharing their own stories.

“Attorney General Barr wrote the memo for vulnerable people like me to be released in home confinement,” wrote Cesal. “Notwithstanding whether the warden likes me.”

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.