Former Pa. judge in 'kids for cash' scandal released from prison

Michael Conahan, 68, was sent home on a 30-day furlough that could lead to permanent home confinement for the remainder of his sentence

By Michael R. Sisak and Michael Balsamo
Associated Press

SCRANTON, Pa. — A former Pennsylvania judge involved in a scheme to send children to a for-profit jail in exchange for kickbacks was released from federal prison with six years left on his sentence because of coronavirus concerns, two law enforcement officials with knowledge of the matter told The Associated Press.

Michael Conahan, 68, was sent home from the low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Miami last Friday on a 30-day furlough that could lead to permanent home confinement for the remainder of his sentence, the officials said.

Michael Conahan, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pa.
Michael Conahan, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pa. (AP Photo/David Kidwell)

Prison officials had released Conahan in part because he has medical conditions that put him at a high risk for complications if he contracted the disease, according to the law enforcement sources, who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and did so on condition of anonymity.

With a furlough, an inmate like Conahan is able to go home sooner while a final decision on home confinement is still being made.

In a handwritten court petition for compassionate release, which was rejected last week on a technicality, Conahan said his high blood pressure, heart issues and Guillain-Barre syndrome — a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves — put him at “grave danger of not only contracting the virus, but of dying from the virus.”

Conahan, whose corruption behavior was dissected in a documentary film, books and national news coverage, joins the likes of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen in getting sprung from prison early.

A message seeking comment was left with Conahan’s lawyer. The Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, first reported Conahan's release.

Conahan was sentenced in 2011 to 17½ years in prison for his role in what became known as the kids-for-cash scandal. The ex-Luzerne County judge pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge for accepting a share of $2.8 million from the builder and co-owner of the for-profit detention center.

Conahan, who headed the county’s court system in Northeastern Pennsylvania from 2002 to 2006 and earned the nickname “The Boss,” closed down a county-owned juvenile detention center and signed a secret agreement to send children to the for-profit facility, prosecutors said.

Mark Ciavarella, the ex-juvenile court judge who sent thousands of children to the for-profit detention center, was convicted at trial and is serving a 28-year federal prison sentence.

Soon after their arrests, Conahan and Ciavarella reached a plea agreement to serve a sentence of more than seven years in prison each, but a judge rejected the deal. Had it taken effect, Conahan would have been allowed to leave prison in 2016. Conahan’s petition to the Justice Department to have his sentence commuted is still pending.

With the coronavirus sweeping through federal lockups, the Bureau of Prisons has been increasingly relying on home confinement to clear cramped quarters and spare high-risk inmates from infection.

The federal prison system has struggled to combat the coronavirus pandemic behind bars, where social distancing is nearly impossible, and as of Tuesday, 6,341 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at facilities across the U.S.; nearly 5,000 had recovered. Officials said 87 inmates have died since late March.

The agency has given priority to inmates who’ve served at least half of their sentence and those within 18 months of release, though it has the ultimate discretion on who can be released.

The Miami facility where Conahan was incarcerated has had seven inmates and 12 staff members test positive for COVID-19, but no deaths, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

In comparison, a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, has had more than 600 inmates test positive, with 12 of them dying of the disease.

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