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A sudden homecoming for one of the people sent back to prison with no warning

The Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., where Eva Cardoza spent 14 months.
Mark Bonifacio
NY Daily News via Getty Images
The Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., where Eva Cardoza spent 14 months.

Big changes have arrived for the family of Eric Alvarez.

Hours after a story aired on NPR's Morning Edition last week, a federal judge found "extraordinary circumstances" that called for the release of Alvarez's fiancée from a prison in Danbury, Conn.

"In other words, Petitioner's family is currently experiencing a dire, urgent situation," ruled U.S. District Judge Sarala Nagala.

Eva Cardoza was one of 230 people released from federal prison during the pandemic only to be sent back after small infractions, like a single positive alcohol or drug test. In June 2021, Alvarez and Cardoza took a 90-minute cab ride to the Bronx so Cardoza could meet with staffers in charge of her supervision. Alvarez waited outside in the taxi, but Cardoza, who had tested positive for marijuana, did not come out of the building that day.

"I mean, I just went down on my knees and just cried because it was a long process," Alvarez said of the moment when he learned Cardoza would return after 14 months in federal prison.

Alvarez has been struggling with heart trouble and colon cancer while taking care of his four children and his fiancée's daughter. He said the family celebrated Cardoza's homecoming with a tradition: a meal of Chinese food and photos on the porch.

Life for the children is returning to normal, with the most immediate changes for Cardoza's teenage daughter.

"Seeing her [go] from crying and being sad in the corner to seeing her alert and running and hugging on her mom, and you know, that's all I wanted," Alvarez said.

The Bureau of Prisons told NPR that 442 people released to home confinement during the pandemic have been returned to prison. More than half like Cardoza allegedly violated rules about alcohol or drug use. The BOP says a tiny fraction, 17 people out of 11,000, committed new crimes while released — mostly related to drugs.

Alvarez said he's grateful that the system worked in this case. But he said lots of other families need due process: the chance to challenge the evidence against them before being sent back to prison.

"If you're accused of something, you have every single right, you're innocent until proven guilty, to defend yourself and to comment on the things that are being said about you," he said.

Alvarez and Cardoza are now planning a wedding. He's thrilled that he'll have more time to take care of his health. But he said the prison system needs to develop clear rules for prisoners and their families.

"There's a lot of people like me at home, elderly that need their loved ones back so they can help, and they're being held over something really, really, really minor," he said. "It shouldn't be that way."

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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