COVID-19 Special Coverage
Supreme Court denies request to block Ohio COVID-19 prisoner release plan
© WikiMedia (Michael Coghlan)
Supreme Court denies request to block Ohio COVID-19 prisoner release plan

The US Supreme Court issued an Tuesday today denying the federal government’s request to block a plan to release elderly and low-risk prisoners of the Elkton Federal Correctional Institute (FCI-Elkton) due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan was ordered by a judge for the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio on April 22 after inmates of FCI-Elkton filed suit requesting that certain categories of inmates be released from the prison, where nine inmates had already died from COVID-19.

The inmates argued that the conditions at FCI-Elkton put them at high risk of contracting the virus since social distancing is virtually impossible at the facility and the measures taken by the prison officials were inadequate to reduce the risk. They argued that the conditions at the prison, therefore, were a violation of their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

The district court, in its April 22 order, granted the inmates’ request and instructed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to evaluate elderly and high-risk prisoners for compassionate release, home confinement or transfer to another facility where social distancing is possible within the next two weeks. The BOP, however, did not release the inmates and appealed the district court’s decision, arguing that releasing the prisoners would jeopardize public safety.

The BOP also petitioned the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit first and, when it failed, the US Supreme Court to block the district court’s April 22 order while appeal was pending.

Meanwhile, on May 19, the district court issued a new order that essentially enforced the April 22 order and imposed additional measures.

Because the BOP’s petition was based on the April 22 order and not the May 19 order, the US Supreme Court denied, in a one-page order, the BOP’s request. It did, however, clarify that the BOP could request a new stay based on the May 19 order “if circumstances warrant.”

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