Just a few hours after the Supreme Court granted his request to temporarily block the release of grand jury materials from the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco was back at the court with a new filing. This time the filing was on behalf of the federal Bureau of Prisons and federal prison officials, asking the justices to put a temporary hold on an order by a federal district court that would require the BOP to remove or transfer as many as 800 elderly or medically vulnerable inmates from a federal prison in Ohio where nine inmates have died from COVID-19.
The case was filed last month by inmates at FCI-Elkton, a low-security prison in Ohio that houses 2,500 inmates. The inmates argued that, as a result of COVID-19, conditions at the prison violated their Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. In an order issued on April 22, the district court ordered the BOP to “determine the appropriate means of transferring” elderly and medically vulnerable inmates out of the prison – for example, by compassionate release or parole or by moving them to another federal facility.
Yesterday, after the district court was unsatisfied with the BOP’s efforts to comply with its original order, it ordered the BOP to revise the criteria for deciding whether an inmate is eligible for home confinement and to quickly reevaluate whether inmates might be eligible under the new criteria. It also instructed the BOP to explain, within seven days, why ineligible inmates could not be moved to another prison “where social distancing is possible.”
The federal government asked the justices to put these rulings on hold while it appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit and, if necessary, the Supreme Court. The government emphasized that, “even in normal times, an order requiring the transfer or release of ‘prisoners in large numbers * * * is a matter of undoubted, grave concern’” that runs the risk not only of “jeopardizing public safety” but also interfering in the management of prisons. Moreover, the government added, the inmates are unlikely to prevail on the merits of their claim: Although “COVID-19 presents significant health risks,” the BOP has worked hard to reduce the risk of the virus in the prison, and the number of inmates in the hospital is on the decline.
The government’s request went to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who fields emergency appeals from the 6th Circuit. She ordered the inmates to respond to the government’s request by Friday, May 22, at 10 a.m. EDT.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.