Supreme Court blocks order to remove inmates at Ohio prison

The inmates were scheduled for transfer as part of an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton


By John Caniglia
The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an administrative order Thursday that puts a hold on the transfer of 120 inmates out of the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton over concerns about the coronavirus.

The inmates were scheduled for transfer Friday as part of an attempt to curb the spread of the virus in the prison where nine inmates have died and nearly 500 felons have contracted the coronavirus.

David Carey, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the U.S. Justice Department advised him that the inmates would not be transferred. The ACLU is representing the inmates at the prison that houses about 2,300 felons in Columbiana County, about 100 miles from Cleveland.

Sotomayor’s two-sentence order does not take into account the evidence of the case or the court’s findings. Instead, it seeks to have the issue put on hold as the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati hears additional arguments at a hearing scheduled for Friday.

Attempts to reach spokespersons for federal attorneys representing the Federal Bureau of Prisons were unsuccessful.

The decision is the latest in a legal donnybrook that began in April when the ACLU of Ohio filed suit, seeking a court order to stop the violation of inmates’ rights because of the virus.

The legal sparring continued when U.S. District Judge James Gwin ordered the prisons bureau to fast-track the transfers or releases of home confinement for vulnerable prisoners – those who were 65 or older and most susceptible to illness.

Upset with the system’s slow progress, Gwin pushed to accelerate the process last month and added measures to make sure that happened, such as providing updates every two days.

The issue has bounced between the appellate courts and the Supreme Court over the past few months.

In documents, federal attorneys criticized Gwin, saying the prisons bureau “has been forced to devote its resources to complying with serial judicial decrees that override [the agency’s] judgment concerning the administration of Elkton and the correctional system, including in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The attorneys said Gwin’s “dramatic imposition is all the more unwarranted” because the prisons bureau has worked extensively to fight the spread of the virus. They said testing has increased, and hospitalizations have dropped dramatically.

Attorneys for the ACLU said in documents that officials at the prisons bureau “knew about the risks within Elkton, yet never address them adequately.”

“They continued forcing prisoners to live in crowded units where social distancing is impossible, making the continued spread of COVID-19 a foregone conclusion,” the attorneys said in documents.

In early April, Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the Ohio National Guard to the prison to assist medical staff in responding to the exploding number of cases there.

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©2020 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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