Judge Rules in Favor of Federal Inmates in Coronavirus Suit, Orders Speedier Releases

A Connecticut federal prison's failures to grant early release to eligible inmates "amount to deliberate indifference" under the Eighth Amendment, the judge says.


Late Tuesday night, a federal judge ordered a federal prison in Connecticut to speed up its process for releasing inmates at serious risk for COVID-19, finding that officials' foot-dragging violated inmates' constitutional right not to undergo cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Judge Michael Shea ruled that the four lead plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit, all inmates at FCI Danbury, had showed that prison officials "are making only limited use of their home confinement authority, as well as other tools at their disposal to protect inmates during the outbreak, and that these failures amount to deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to inmates in violation of the Eighth Amendment."

The class-action suit—brought by by the Quinnipiac University School of Law, Yale Law School, and the law firm of Silver Golub & Teitell—argued that Danbury leadership was failing to use its recently expanded authority to expedite the early release of inmates. 

This failure, the lawsuit argues, puts the incarcerated population at FCI Danbury, a low-security federal prison in Connecticut, at unconstitutional risk of harm. One Danbury inmate has died from the virus; according to the latest BOP numbers, 27 more inmates and seven staff are known to be infected with COVID-19.

The judge did not rule on the lawsuit's most ambitious argument, which seeks a mass transfer of inmates out of Danbury, but he issued a temporary restraining order, first reported by the Hartford Courant, that will require the Danbury warden to submit a list of all inmates eligible for early release within 13 days and a written explanation of each denial.

Shea's ruling notes that the Danbury warden has not approved any of the 241 requests for compassionate release filed by inmates since the COVID-19 crisis began.

The ruling is part of a growing pile of indications that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has not been wholeheartedly embracing expanded powers from Congress to release inmates at risk at COVID-19, or Attorney General William Bar's March directive to do so.

In a letter to Congress yesterday, a group of federal public defenders warned that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the BOP "have made little use of these authorities to reduce prison populations and enable social distancing."

Although the BOP says it has placed an additional 2,471 inmates on home confinement since Barr's order, criminal justice reformers and families of those incarcerated in federal prisons say the rollout of the directive has been slow and contradictory. Many federal inmates across the country were told they had been approved for early release and put into pre-release quarantine, only later to be told that the rules had changed and they were being sent back.

Civil liberties groups, criminal justice organizations, and prison guard unions all warned when COVID-19 hit American shores that the nation's jails and prisons were woefully unequipped to handle a deadly epidemic. Although many jurisdictions have taken unprecedented steps to reduce incarcerated populations, it has not stopped jails and prisons from becoming many of the biggest COVID-19 clusters in the country.

On Monday, a federal judge in San Francisco sharply criticized the local U.S. Attorney's Office for trying to coerce a defendant into a plea deal that would have narrowed his right to petition for compassionate release—one of the mechanisms through which inmates at risk from COVID-19 can be granted early release. The judge called the proposed plea bargain "appallingly cruel."

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  1. Lockdowns are for non-criminals.

  2. As Koch / Reason libertarians, we’re always looking for ways to provide new sources of labor for our benefactor Charles Koch. Our relentless promotion of unlimited, unrestricted immigration is the most obvious example. But in addition to opening the borders, we also want to empty the prisons.

    You might find this puzzling. “If prisoners couldn’t even function in society without breaking the rules and getting caught,” you might wonder, “would they really make desirable employees?” Well, the answer is yes. Mr. Koch is a brilliant businessman who knows what he’s doing when it comes to hiring. He didn’t become one of the richest people on the planet by dumb luck.


  3. Our relentless promotion of unlimited, unrestricted immigration is the most obvious example. But in addition to opening the borders, we also want to empty the prisons. website designer in jaipur He didn’t become one of the richest people on the planet by dumb luck.

  4. Does being let out of prison make you immune from the coronavirus?

    AFAIK, we can all get sick. Why should that mean get out jail free cards for felons?

    1. Well, besides the desire of the ruling class to use criminal to terrorize the public.

    2. If you can tell us how inmates are supposed to comply with social distancing rules while in prison, you’d have a stronger argument. The government, in the form of the Bureau of Prisons’ bosses, thought that just wasn’t possible and ordered the BoP to do something about it. As evidenced in this article, the BoP is ignoring their bosses’ instructions.

      If you believe the fear-mongers, the BoP is effectively converting low-level prison sentences into death sentences by denying prisoners the ability to socially-distance. If you don’t believe the fear-mongers, then keeping prisoners locked up makes sense but keeping the rest of us locked up does not. Since the government cannot concede the second point, they must advance as if the first were true.

  5. Lovely, another Obama judge fucking things up, deliberately.

    1. Libertarians for Prison-Industrial Complex?

  6. The best time to release prisoners is always during a period of massive unemployment.

  7. I don’t understand the governments reasoning on cases like this. Once they are out do they have to feed themselves and house themselves and provide their own medical care? If so give them an ankle bracelet and get them out. Let them pay for their own upkeep, not us. Unless they are a danger to the public this should be the default for most prisoners, fine the hell out of them and confine them at home. Hell I have not broken the law and just spent the last two months in home confinement, can’t wait to get out and back to work.

    1. I don’t understand why fiscally conservative libertarians want to pay to keep old sick low level prisoners locked up. Old people are the ones at highest risk and also the least likely to re offend. You can’t effectively socially distance in a prison.

  8. Hooray for the Syria strategy!
    Free the felons and lock up the citizens.

  9. let me know when the Death Races start. i’ll be excellent at that.

  10. “woefully unequipped to handle a deadly epidemic”….not a deadly epidemic. It’s been perfectly obvious for months that COVID-19 kills the elderly and others with co-morbidities. Those who are invested in the “deadliness” myth can’t back down until they can claim victory.

    1. So it’s OK to only kill the old and sick prisoners?

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