Amid concerns about the health of staff and vulnerable inmates, officials across the nation have called on jails and prisons to release certain non-violent offenders in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Now, according to The Hill, the U.S. Supreme Court has provided some support in that ongoing effort by declining a Trump administration request to block a lower court’s order allowing a federal prison in Ohio to grant such early releases.
Three of the court’s conservative justices, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, each indicated that they would have issued a stay on the lower court’s order. The ruling further stipulated that the administration could appeal its ruling again at some point in the future.
Lower court orders review
As USA Today explained, the case stemmed from a COVID-19 outbreak at Elkton Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security federal prison in Ohio that houses as many as 2,500 inmates.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing four of the inmates in this lawsuit, cited federal prison officials who say at least nine inmates have died of the pandemic virus. At least seven staff members and 162 inmates in total have tested positive for the infection.
Attorneys argued that social distancing measures recommended to stop the virus’s spread were ineffective, if not impossible, with as many as 150 inmates housed together in the prison’s dormitory-style barracks.
Last month, U.S. District Judge James Gwin ruled that the Bureau of Prisons must conduct a review of the facility’s population and identify any inmates who were either elderly or medically vulnerable and would be eligible for an early release or a transfer to home confinement to continue serving their sentences.
“Extraordinarily significant questions”
Estimates showed more than 800 inmates could be particularly susceptible to the disease. When none had been released, however, Gwin issued a follow-up order earlier this month urging swifter action from the prison in releasing those individuals.
In response, the Trump administration sought a ruling from the Supreme Court that would block the implementation of that earlier order, arguing that “extraordinarily significant questions” needed to be answered following a more thorough review, NBC News reported.
A majority of justices disagreed, although this week’s decision did not apply to Gwin’s follow-up order. The call for an expedited removal process could still be appealed and potentially blocked under the Supreme Court’s decision.
It is clear that the coronavirus has proven particularly troublesome in some correctional facilities, threatening the health of both inmates and guards.
Nevertheless, there are many Americans concerned about the possible repercussions of releasing an untold number of convicted criminals onto the streets.