SCOTUS declines to halt order transferring prisoners due to coronavirus concerns

The Hill reports that the Supreme Court has — for now — opted not to block a district judge’s order that federal prisoners at risk of contracting coronavirus be moved from the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio.

The high court declined to issue a stay of an order from April mandating that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) release or relocate inmates at risk of contracting COVID-19 from the facility near Canton, NBC News reported. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, dissented from the majority opinion.

Inmates cite dangerous conditions

Attorneys for four inmates in the Elkton prison argued that the facility was incapable of imposing social distancing requirements prescribed by the BOP, given the logistical and space constraints on site. They claimed that these limitations were to blame for the 162 prisoners and seven facility staffers who had already tested positive for the illness, as well as for nine associated deaths, according to NBC News.

“[Inmates] are housed, cheek by jowl, in dormitory-style rooms of approximately 150 persons each,” lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union were quoted as telling the court.

Their argument continued: “Though well aware that social distancing is an indispensable means of protecting themselves, they are powerless to use it.”

DOJ: Sufficient precautions taken

In response, attorneys from the Department of Justice contended that the order was unnecessary, as sufficient safeguards had already been implemented.

“They have minimized social interactions; distributed necessary cleaning supplies, masks, and protective equipment; and established quarantine, testing, and treatment protocols,” the Justice Department’s brief in the matter read.

“Furthermore, when Elkton experienced a number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, prison officials worked to both limit transmission of the virus and ensure that those affected receive adequate medical treatment,” the DOJ continued.

District order stands…for now

The case arose as a result of an April order issued by U.S. District Judge James Gwin in which he stated that “the Elkton officials fight a losing battle. A losing battle for staff. A losing battle for inmates.” He went on:

To date, Elkton has received only 50 COVID-19 swab tests and one Abbott Rapid testing machine with 25 rapid tests.

Most swab tests have already been used. Because the Department of Justice has given [the Bureau of Prisons] BOP so few tests, Elkton medical staff has needed to triage test usage.

Gwin concluded by instructing prison officials “to evaluate each subclass member’s eligibility for transfer out of Elkton through any means, including but not limited to compassionate release, parole or community supervision, transfer furlough, or nontransfer furlough within two (2) weeks.”

As NBC News reported, it is worth noting that the Supreme Court’s order in this case specified that the DOJ had only lodged its opposition to Judge Gwin’s April order and had not addressed a subsequent order from the same judge in May.

As such, it is possible that the Trump administration will return to the high court and request another stay in the coming days.

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