Supreme Court says vulnerable inmates can be released due to coronavirus

The Supreme Court has rejected a Trump administration request to block a lower court’s order to release more than 800 medically-vulnerable inmates from a federal prison in Ohio.

The order handed down on Tuesday comes after four prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institute in Elkton, Ohio filed a class-action lawsuit saying conditions at the prison violated their Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

“Prisons are not Constitution-free zones,” Joseph Mead, a cooperating attorney for the ACLU’s Ohio chapter, said in a statement as reported by the Davis Vanguard. “People who live and work in prisons should not be forced to face unnecessary risk of death and disease.”

Nine inmates have died and more than 200 others have become infected at the Elkhorn prison since the start of the global pandemic linked to the novel coronavirus COVID-19, according to figures published by the Bureau of Prisons as of Wednesday. In addition to the inmate infections, seven staff members at the prison have tested positive.

The Elkhorn facility has the third-highest rate of infections among inmates according to BOP data.

“People at Elkton are dying. The situation is particularly dire, even compared to other corrections facilities,” David Carey, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU in Ohio, told the Cleveland Scene in April. “We’ve already seen that prisons are tinderboxes for COVID-19 because people are forced to exist in close, shared spaces for eating, sleeping, and bathing. … Further delay will result in further death.”

The Supreme Court agreed, refusing to block a lower court’s judgment that BOP officials immediately start releasing more than 800 medically-vulnerable inmates from the low-security prison.

In a one-page ruling on the matter, the Supreme Court said the Trump administration failed to challenge an order issued by the federal court on May 19. Instead, the Trump administration requested a review of a preliminary injunction issued on April 22.

The May 19 order superseded the April 22 ruling, and since the Trump administration failed to challenge the newer order, the Supreme Court declined to take up the issue.

Even if the Trump administration had challenged both injunctions, only three Supreme Court justices would have granted their request, the order released on Tuesday said. That would have fallen short of the majority needed to overturn the lower court’s decisions.

A decision in the overall case is still pending in federal court, meaning vulnerable inmates will likely have to wait in custody a bit longer.