Sotomayor Halts Order Moving Ohio Inmates Due To Outbreak

By Jimmy Hoover
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Law360 (June 4, 2020, 8:19 PM EDT) -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Thursday blocked a district court order forcing the Bureau of Prisons to move more than 120 medically vulnerable inmates from a federal prison in Ohio on Friday in response to the facility's deadly COVID-19 outbreak, giving the Sixth Circuit time to rule on the government's appeal.

Justice Sotomayor granted the U.S. Department of Justice's application to stay a court's order to move vulnerable prisoners at the high-density Elkton Federal Correctional Institution — where nine inmates have died of COVID-19 — to home confinement, compassionate release or, in most cases, other prisons. The order required the government to transfer the first of three cohorts totaling more than 800 inmates on Friday after a 14-day quarantine period after which the inmates are supposed to have been tested for the disease.

Justice Sotomayor stayed the district court's order until the Sixth Circuit can rule on the government's appeal and until "further order of the undersigned or of the court." The Sixth Circuit will hear oral arguments in the case on Friday.

Prisoners challenging the confinement conditions at Elkton say that the 2,300-inmate facility is incapable of stopping the spread of the virus, and brought a habeas corpus action under the Eighth Amendment. Prisoners are in close quarters at virtually all times, and life-saving social distancing measures are impossible to implement, they argue.

The Northern District of Ohio agreed and on April 22 ordered the government to look at which prisoners could be sent to home confinement, compassionate release, furloughs or another facility, with a priority on those with medical conditions.

About a month later, the court issued a subsequent order enforcing its original injunction and accused the government of "thumbing their nose at their authority to authorize home confinement." According to the prisoners who brought the action, the government had selected only five inmates for home confinement out of 837 it had identified as vulnerable due to age or medical conditions.

The Supreme Court rejected the government's earlier bid to stay the April 22 ruling, pointing out that the court's subsequent May 19 enforcement order gave the case a difficult "procedural posture." In response, the government filed a new stay application targeting both orders that Justice Sotomayor granted on Thursday.

The government has argued that the prisoners could not bring a habeas challenge to their prison conditions in the midst of a pandemic, and that the district court did not properly apply the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Furthermore, they say, transferring prisoners during a pandemic goes against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The prisoners said the district court acted appropriately in light of a dire situation in which 1 in 5 inmates at Elkton have COVID-19.

"This case does not require the extraordinary measure of this court's intervention," they said. "It is a fact-bound dispute, specific to a single prison afflicted by one of the nation's worst COVID-19 prison outbreaks."

The government is represented by Noel Francisco of the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General.

The prisoners are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Hogan Lovells.

The case is Williams v. Wilson, case number 19A1047, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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