Freedom or Death
One of the groups hardest hit by COVID-19 has been inmates. Close living quarters combined with shoddy sanitary conditions have made many prisons throughout this country a hotbed for COVID-19 spread. Earlier this month, COVID-19 outbreaks at federal prisons in Louisiana, Connecticut and Ohio prompted U.S. Attorney General William Barr to issue two memos to the Director of Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) ordering the director to “immediately maximize appropriate transfers to home confinement” for inmates who met certain criteria.
That criteria specifies that an inmate reside in minimum level security facility, have no acts of violence or gang activity within the last year, possess a non-violent crime of conviction, and demonstrate a low risk of danger to the community. In executing the Attorney General’s order, the BOP also added the requirement that inmates eligible for transfer must have served at least 50 percent of their sentence, or have 18 months or less to serve after having already served 25 percent of their sentence.
In addition to meeting this criteria, the Attorney General further required that the BOP medical director examine and deem inmates, otherwise eligible for home confinement, to be at risk for contracting severe COVID-19 based on CDC guidelines. Under CDC guidelines, those at the highest risk of contracting severe COVID-19 are older and or have underlying health conditions such as asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes, or serious heart conditions.
Thus far, the BOP’s response to the Attorney General’s orders has been tepid. Since the Attorney General’s last memo issued on April 3, the number of inmates allowed to serve their sentence on home confinement has increased only modestly to 1027, which is about half of 1 percent of the more than 174,000 people that were in the bureau’s custody at the start of the April.
Because of this tepid response, lawsuits are springing up around the country by federal inmates demanding that they be released to home confinement because of their underlying health conditions. Just this past week, a class action lawsuit was filed against the Federal Prison at Danbury, its warden, and the director of BOP claiming that certain inmates at the facility “are at imminent risk of contracting COVID-19.” The complaint accuses prison officials of “being aware of the grave dangers posed by COVID-19” but failing “to implement measures to comply with their constitutional obligations to those in their custody.” The suit seeks an emergency order requiring the “immediate transfer of the most medically vulnerable individuals to home confinement.”
A similar class action lawsuit was brought by inmates against the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution. Their suit sought an emergency court order to furlough inmates who were old or had underlying conditions consistent with the CDC guidelines. The federal judge in this case recently granted the inmates request for an emergency order, requiring the facility to determine the appropriate means for transferring medically vulnerable inmates out of the facility. Notably, the judge in this case ruled that the transfer of the COVID-19 virus is a “serious medical need,” and that BOP officials at this facility had acted with “deliberate indifference” to this need.
Medically vulnerable inmates who are forced to remain in close contact with inmates that may have COVID-19 are at a high risk of death. Federal prison officials who are aware of medically vulnerable inmates at their facility that meet the Attorney General’s criteria, yet who refuse to take steps to transfer these individuals to home confinement are violating these inmates 8th Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. The Magna Law firm is actively investigating these cases. If you know of an inmate who is suffering under these circumstances, please contact our law firm at 763-438-3032. We do pay referral fees to attorneys who refer cases to our law firm.
Oliver Nelson III