Today my inbox got two dispiriting reminders that federal prisons are still struggling in many awful ways with the coronavirus pandemic. One reminder came from this new Washington Post piece headlined “Frail inmates could be sent home to prevent the spread of covid-19. Instead, some are dying in federal prisons.” I recommend the full piece (which discusses numerous compassionate release cases), and here are excerpts:
The Bureau of Prisons said 25 people have died in its custody this year while their requests for sentence reduction were under consideration, including 18 since March 1, around the time the coronavirus began spreading in U.S. communities.
To fight the virus’s spread, Attorney General William P. Barr in late March directed federal prisons to send vulnerable, low-risk inmates to home confinement or release them outright. According to the Bureau of Prisons website, about 7,000 inmates, or about 4 percent of its 160,000-inmate population, have been sent home since.
But the bureau has largely disregarded one method it has to release inmates, a procedure that seems ideally suited for the coronavirus pandemic — compassionate release. Part of bipartisan legislation passed in 2018, compassionate release was intended as a way to swiftly grant release to inmates who are terminally ill or for other “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Yet even as it has released some prisoners to home confinement, the bureau routinely has opposed or not responded to requests for compassionate release.
In 50 cases decided in early July, for example, the bureau opposed 38 compassionate release requests or did not respond to them, and the requests were denied by courts, which make the final decision. The bureau also opposed 10 cases that courts eventually granted. Only in two cases did the agency agree to a release before a court intervened. In an email, bureau spokesman Justin Long said the bureau “has been proceeding expeditiously” on compassionate release requests….
The ACLU and other advocates for prisoners sued the bureau in May, seeking the release of as many Butner inmates as needed to allow for social distancing. “What’s alarming in all these institutional cases is how slow and sluggish the system has been to respond,” said Jonathan Smith of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, which joined the lawsuit.
In a court document dated June 11, bureau officials said that since Barr’s guidance was released, 42 inmates at Butner — about 1 percent of the prison’s population — were transferred to home confinement, and nine were transferred to halfway houses. The number of compassionate releases from Butner was not readily available, BOP said.
A second reminder came in the form of this new fact sheet from the Federal Public Community Defenders titled “The Worsening COVID-19 Crisis in Federal Detention.” This two-page document (with lots of links) should also be read in full, and here is its opening paragraphs:
COVID-19 is ripping through the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), infecting incarcerated individuals at a rate 5.95 times higher than the general population. This crisis is occurring in a system that, due to structural racism, is disproportionately populated by Black and Hispanic people. And Attorney General Barr and BOP are using a risk assessment tool (PATTERN) — that likely has an outsized negative impact on Black men — to prioritize eligibility for home confinement. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has not provided demographic data on the individuals BOP has approved for home confinement, despite congressional demands, and the only public data it has provided on PATTERN indicate just 7% of Black men qualify compared to 30% of white men. As the public rises to demand a reckoning with institutional racism, we cannot allow these conditions to persist.
On June 2, BOP Director Carvajal told Congress “We are beginning to flatten the curve.” He was wrong. BOP reports at least 107 deaths of incarcerated individuals. The highest number of deaths in BOP prisons have occurred in Texas (currently the site of the three worst federal prison outbreaks in the country), North Carolina, California, Ohio, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Some of these deaths were surely preventable. BOP’s press releases reveal that the majority of these individuals — 83 — were known to be at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. Over a quarter of the people who have died in BOP’s care were seventy years old or older. But they were never moved to a place of safety. And at least five died after asking — and some even being approved — for compassionate release or home confinement