COVID-19 Special Coverage
Federal judges deny request to release California inmates due to COVID-19 crisis
© WikiMedia (Michael Coghlan)
Federal judges deny request to release California inmates due to COVID-19 crisis

A special US District Court panel of three judges on Saturday denied California inmates’ request that a certain category of inmates be released in order to allow the physical distancing necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The request, which was filed on March 25, invoked an order entered by the special panel in 2009 in favor of the very same inmates who filed the present request.

The 2009 order required California state prisons to reduce and maintain its inmate population to 137.5 percent design capacity in order to comply with its obligation to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental healthcare services for inmates.

In their request, the inmates urged the panel to modify the 2009 order to require that California state prisons further reduce their inmate population because of the COVID-19 crisis. They asked that the panel order the state prisons to release inmates who are scheduled to parole within one year and are either low risk or serving time for a non-violent offense or those who, because of their age or various medical conditions, are at high risk of developing the severe form of COVID-19.

However, on Saturday, the panel denied the inmates’ request. This denial to release prisoners because of the pandemic is not the only one for the country; Pennsylvania also denied a similar request recently (albeit on different grounds than the ones invoked by this panel).

The panel determined that, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5), it lacked the necessary authority to modify the 2009 order because COVID-19, the threat which prompted the present request, was different in nature from the one which prompted the panel to issue the 2009 order.

The panel explained that the 2009 order was not issued to ensure that California state prisons could adequately deal with a “once-in-a lifetime pandemic” like COVID-19; rather it was issued to rectify the deficiencies in California state prisons’ medical and mental health care delivery system, and that because of this, it lacked the authority to order the release.

The panel also explained that the proper approach to get the requested release is through a new order rather than the modification of the 2009 order.

Yet, a new order would take a considerable amount of time. To get a new order the inmates would first need to bring the claim to a single judge who would order the prisons to takes steps (other than the release of the inmates) necessary to remedy the situation; then, only if the problem persists after the prisons have had a reasonable opportunity to comply with those steps, could they file a request with the panel to determine if a release is appropriate.

On the other hand, a reduction of approximately 6,500 inmates is expected over the next few weeks thanks to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Ralph Diaz’ decision to accelerate the release of inmates who have less than 60 days remaining on their sentence, are not serving time for a violent felony or domestic violence, and are not required to register as a sex offender.

For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.