Supreme Court Won’t Block Order to Move Inmates Threatened by Virus

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg News/TNS) -
supreme court prisoners coronavirus
View of the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution. (Roseohioresident)

The U.S. Supreme Court left in force a judge’s order that could require federal prison officials to move hundreds of inmates out of an Ohio facility where at least nine people have died from the coronavirus.

The justices on Tuesday rejected calls from President Donald Trump’s administration to block the order. U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco said the order will undermine the Bureau of Prisons’ systemic response to the pandemic and force prisoner transfers that could increase the risk of spreading the virus.

The court left open the possibility that the administration could file a new stay application in the coming weeks. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

The case was one of the first to test the high court’s approach toward prisoners whose confined quarters put them at heightened risk of COVID-19 infection.

The Elkton Federal Correctional Institution has emerged as a hot spot for Covid-19, with more than 100 inmates and staff having tested positive. The low-security facility in western Ohio houses more than 2,300 prisoners in dormitory-style units that make social distancing difficult.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin ordered the prison to move about 840 inmates who either are over 65 or have health conditions that make them especially vulnerable should they contract the virus. Gwin said officials should consider compassionate release, home confinement or transfer to a different prison.

Four inmates who sued say no prisoners have been moved as a result of the April 22 order, even as the virus has spread throughout the facility.

Gwin followed up with a more stringent order on May 19, when he cited the prison’s “limited efforts” to reduce the Covid-19 risks and “poor progress” in moving inmates.