Report: Oaks of Justice Pitch to Help Prisoners Return Home Appears Shady
It’s scarcely news that people incarcerated in federal prison are often desperate for any possible chance to return home. Unfortunately, prisoners aren’t really in a position to verify the legitimacy of assorted offers of shortened sentences, and misinformation is rampant.
On its website, the group Oaks of Justice claims that it can assist federal prisoners in obtaining early release and completing their sentences at home while being monitored by surveillance systems worn on their wrists like a smart watch. According to its website, the wrist monitors track respiration, pulse, and alcohol or drug use.
The company also claims that its program is part of the First Step Act. Oaks of Justice says users of its service must remain within boundaries, a so-called “geo-yard,” set at the time of release.
Company founder Joanne Barefoot Morgan (aka Winnie Joanne Barefoot) has claimed that federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officials and President Donald Trump support the program, according to a January 2020 report by The Marshall Project. A spokesperson for the BOP said the Bureau has no such deal with the company.
Dolores Wallace’s sister was serving a 3 ½-year sentence in federal prison. She asked Dolores to look into the company, spurred by talk about it on her cellblock. Wallace’s sister had recently wasted $6,000 on another early-release program based on enrolling in rehab, which ended up being a scam. “At this point, I’m nobody’s fool,” the skeptical Wallace said.
Eventually she received a letter stating that her sister had been accepted. Morgan wrote in the letter that when final confirmation came from the BOP, Wallace would be contacted for a $250 application fee.
Further letters said the program could cost her thousands of dollars, depending on her sister’s conduct and the remaining time on her sentence.
Rebecca Tushnet, a Harvard Law School professor who is an expert on false advertising, said Oaks of Justice could be breaking federal law even with no exchange of money. “If the pitch is, ‘Eventually I’m going to ask you to send me money,’ then definitely that can violate the law,” said Tushnet. “She’s clearly causing damage. Most of that damage is not going to be economic.”
Morgan herself served almost five years in federal prison before her release in December 2016, The Marshall Project reported.
She pleaded to bank fraud for a variety of whitecollar crimes. Oaks of Justice was formed while she was still on probation, nine months after release, and she claims that her probation officer “is fully aware of the company.”
The old cliché, “Let the buyer beware,” may very well apply here.