Justice Department Asks Supreme Court To Block Judge's Order To Release Inmates at Ohio Federal Prison

A federal judge ordered officials at Elkton to stop "thumbing their nose" at their own authority to release inmates at risk of coronavirus.


The U.S. government is asking the Supreme Court to block a federal judge's injunction ordering a federal prison in Ohio to release elderly and at-risk inmates due to the threat of COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin filed the injunction on Tuesday, after finding that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had not made enough progress with a previous order to identify inmates eligible for early release or transfer. By "thumbing their nose at their authority to authorize home confinement," he wrote, prison officials "threaten staff and they threaten low security inmates."

On Wednesday, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco filed an application to the Supreme Court seeking a stay of the injunction. Arguing on behalf of the federal government, he said that letting Gwin's injunction stand "would undermine BOP's systemic response to the COVID-19 pandemic; intrude the Judicial Branch on policy decisions that have been assigned to expert prison administrators; and require BOP to defy the CDC's guidance to restrict prisoner movements during the pandemic to avoid unnecessary risk of spreading the virus."

The prison in question is FCI Elkton, a low-security institution in Ohio that houses approximately 2,500 inmates. So far, nine Elkton inmates have died of COVID-19, the most of any federal prison. According to the BOP's latest reported numbers, 119 inmates and 8 staff are infected with the virus.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center filed the class-action lawsuit in April on behalf of four men incarcerated at Elkton. The suit argues that Elkton "failed to provide meaningful protection against the spread of the disease," violating inmates' Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

On March 27, following calls from lawmakers and advocacy groups to address the threat of COVID-19 in federal prisons, Attorney General William Barr issued a directive ordering the BOP to identify elderly and at-risk inmates who met certain criteria and release them, either through an early transfer to home confinement or through compassionate release.

Although the BOP has approved the early release of nearly 3,000 inmates, the rollout was hampered by contradictory rules; criminal justice advocates and families of inmates say the BOP only half-heartedly complied with it. In a letter to Congress earlier this month, a group of federal public defenders warned that the Department of Justice and the BOP "have made little use of these authorities to reduce prison populations and enable social distancing."

On April 22, Gwin issued a preliminary injunction ordering Elkton officials to identify all elderly and at-risk inmates and evaluate them for early release within two weeks.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Justice Department's appeal of Gwin's order on May 4.

On Tuesday, Gwin ruled that Elkton had made poor progress expanding testing and had made "only minimal effort to get at-risk inmates out of harm's way." Of the 837 elderly and at-risk inmates that Elkton officials identified, only five were pending transfer to home confinement. Meanwhile, one in four inmates had been infected by COVID-19.

Gwin's injunction orders the prison "to make full use of the home confinement authority beyond the paltry grants of home confinement it has already issued." It also requires officials to give detailed explanations for denials.

ACLU of Ohio Senior Staff Attorney David Carey said in a statement that the ruling "confirms the urgent need to comply with the Court's order and respond to the crisis in an efficient and expedient manner."

"The federal government has attempted to stall and delay the release of medically-vulnerable individuals at every single turn," he continued.

The ACLU and other advocacy groups have filed numerous lawsuits against prisons and jails across the country since COVID-19 hit American shores. Earlier this month, a U.S. District judge in Connecticut ordered officials at Danbury federal prison to speed up their process for identifying inmates eligible for release, finding that their foot-dragging amounted to "deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to inmates in violation of the Eighth Amendment."

But Gwin's injunction goes farther, and in fact requires Elkton officials to go beyond Barr's directive. It orders them to disregard such criteria as the amount of sentence served, citizenship status, and violent offense restrictions, if the offense happened more than five years ago and would otherwise be the sole reason for disqualification.

The Justice Department, in its Supreme Court application, argues the BOP has mitigated the risk of COVID-19 at Elkton and that risk of the virus "could not remotely justify the peremptory order to remove more than 800 inmates from Elkton."

NEXT: Do Tattoo Shops Have a First Amendment Right To Remain Open During a Pandemic?

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  1. Why does being at risk for this virus mean you should get out of jail? That is absurd. There have already been dozens of documented cases where people who were released because of this ended up committing crimes once they were released. What about the people who are victims of those crimes? Do they just not matter? Does anyone’s interests other than convicted criminals and illegal aliens’ interests matter at all to reason?

    1. I would bet you’ve committed crimes in your life that you’ve gotten away with. Maybe you should turn yourself in and that way you’ll be protected from the people we release.

      1. Excellent point. Anyone who’s ever illegally downloaded an MP3 is really in no position to complain about prisoners being released.

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      2. Are you in some type of contest on posting the dumbest post or something? You keep one upping yourself.

        1. It’s a simple point. John’s a criminal. You’re a fucking criminal. So you can shut your fucking mouth. Why should all prisoners suffer because a few may commit new crimes?

          1. The entire “do the crime, do the time” mindlessness is always eagerly applied to other people’s crimes but conveniently ignored for your own. And what’s this impulse of yours to punish all the prisoners based off the possibility that a few may commit new crimes? That’s fucked up on two levels. You’re punishing individuals for other people’s actions and you’re punishing based on speculation of some future crime. Of course you wouldn’t be a dead end Trump cock sucker if any of these points made sense to you.

            1. Pretty sure felons are punished for their own actions, but maybe I missed our transition to a collectivist court system

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    2. This is a low security prison, meaning it’s not populated by immigrants and murderers.

      1. If you don’t think any of them should be in prison at all, then say so. You may be right But that is true regardless of the virus. Whatever the answer to the question of “should this guy be in jail” the existence of the virus has nothing to do with it.

        My point went right over you people’s heads. I don’t know how much more I can dumb it down for you.

        1. This is why I love brandy’s posts – he is literally too stupid to realize how stupid he is

    3. I agree with you John. The person who killed my child and 2 other people is in this prison. I’ve been in my own internal prison since the day my child died. Why should he get out just because he has a disease that makes him susceptible to the Coronavirus? Three families suffering for the rest of their lives because this selfish person. The perpetrator had many chances to stop but he didn’t which led to these deaths. He had many “outs” where he could have stopped because he knew what he was doing was wrong. He could have chosen the right way but he chose the wrong way-many, many times over an extended period of time. Let us victims have some sense of justice.

    4. I do wonder when something that “may” be done became something that “must” be done.

  2. The primary objective of Koch / Reason libertarianism is to make our benefactor Charles Koch even richer. In order for his businesses to thrive, Mr. Koch needs the largest possible labor force. That’s why we aggressively promote unlimited, unrestricted immigration.

    But although we want to #OpenTheBorders, that isn’t enough. We also want to #EmptyThePrisons. After all, every prisoner represents a potential employee whose time is being wasted behind bars, when it could be better spent working for Mr. Koch.


  3. Once again we see the aclu standing up only for the rogues of society. And about a disease unlikely to kill most people. What society could survive these assaults by scurrilous agitators on the far left?

  4. low security inmates

    If they’re *that* “low security” why are they in actual prison?

    elderly and at-risk inmates

    “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

    1. Because there’s a zone between “really should just be walking around free” and “have to be chained to a post so they won’t eat the guards’ faces off”.

  5. Kinda reminds me of when I lived in Savannah.
    Some judge came up with an order to release a given number of inmates by some date. The Sheriff wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the fact that the number was so large some in for violent crimes would get out.
    Next day there was a letter from a citizen to the sheriff. It said, “go ahead and let ’em all out. Just tell us where and when, and then go get coffee. The town squares are still full of oak trees.”

  6. Maybe they should just give them all masks instead.

  7. Yo…Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.

    TFB prisoners.

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