« A few more COVID-influenced grants of sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A) | Main | Tracking COVID cases in juvenile facilities in incarceration nation »

April 10, 2020

"U.S. prisons' virus-related release policies prompt confusion: ‘It’s crazy how they’re doing this,’ one inmate’s spouse said"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Politico piece spotlighting a story that is likely already familiar to many readers of this blog. Here are excerpts:

Federal prison officials appear confused about how to implement directives to step up early releases of inmates to combat the coronavirus epidemic, according to family members of convicts. One particular source of uncertainty and even danger, the families say, are policies about whether inmates being considered for release must be held in quarantine for 14 days before being sent home — a safeguard aimed at making sure infection isn’t transmitted into the community.

In some instances, inmates being quarantined on that basis are housed near prisoners being isolated because they’re suspected of having the virus, family members said. Wives of inmates at a medium-security federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland told POLITICO the facility is using its special housing unit or “SHU” to hold both categories of prisoners.

“They’re quarantining these healthy inmates with sick inmates that are already down there,” said Angela Sanks, whose husband, Collie, was due out in 2022 and was taken to the SHU for potential release several days ago. “It’s crazy how they’re doing this,” she said. “It’s like they’re just waiting to get this….They’re at risk of being forgotten about. They didn’t get a death sentence.”...

The spouse of an inmate at one of the hardest-hit federal prisons, in Elkton, Ohio, described a puzzling transfer of prisoners into pre-release quarantine and then out again. Tammy Hartmann said her husband Pete, who’s due out of prison in August of next year, was one of 56 inmates whose names were called on Saturday to report for quarantine so they could be sent on home confinement. “They were all told: you’re going home,” she said. But on Wednesday, 54 of the men were sent back to their cells. “They told them, sorry, you’re not going anywhere, because they’d approved only two of them to leave.”

“I actually thought he was coming home,” Hartmann said of her 59-year-old husband who — like other prisoners mentioned in this story — is serving time on drug charges. “I canceled all his subscriptions to magazines because I thought he’d be home in 14 days… I’m trying to hold it together.”

So, far 283 inmate infections and eight deaths have been reported in federal prisons nationwide. The Elkton prison has 10 confirmed infections and three inmate deaths from the virus, according to official statistics. Guards' union officials and inmate advocates say the numbers of infections are actually higher....

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman did not address specifics about steps to segregate symptomatic or exposed prisoners from those set for release, but said facilities are following standards set by the Centers for Disease Control. “All of the BOP's institutions have been directed to designate available space for isolation and quarantine for inmates who have been exposed to or have symptoms of COVID-19. The BOP follows all CDC guidelines with regard to isolation and quarantining,” spokesman Justin Long said.

Despite the Trump administration’s usual tough-on-crime stance, Attorney General William Barr has issued a series of directives in recent weeks encouraging releases to home confinement as a means of reducing crowding at federal prisons and protecting inmates most at-risk for serious illness or death from the virus. The first memo Barr issued on the subject two weeks ago stated that all prisoners being considered for release had to be placed in a “mandatory 14-day quarantine before” being sent to home confinement.

A new memo from Barr last week relaxed that rule, giving prison officials permission to release inmates before the 14-day period is up “in appropriate cases subject to your case-by-case discretion.” That directive called for such inmates to observe a similar quarantine in their residence. Last week’s memo also used a power granted Barr in the last stimulus bill to release a broader swath of prisoners by declaring “emergency conditions” related to the virus. That order may also have slowed releases from less-impacted prisons by prioritizing the ones with the most serious outbreaks.

As of Thursday, the Bureau of Prisons has moved 789 inmates to home confinement since Barr first publicly called to increase those moves on March 26, according to statistics from the agency. That number has risen by more than 200 this week, the figures show.

Some prisoners are also being sent home under a separate “compassionate release” authority typically used for cases of severe or terminal illness. There have been 180 such releases in the past year and a half or so, but the BOP could not immediately say how many have taken place since the coronavirus pandemic broke out.

Federal prosecutors are also being inundated with lawsuits, habeas corpus petitions and re-sentencing requests aimed at freeing prisoners based on dangers caused by the virus. Prosecutors are vigorously fighting efforts to free prisoners en masse, but are sometimes acquiescing in releases when motions are brought to individual judges who handled the relevant criminal case....

The reported numbers of infected federal prisoners could be lagging the reality due to very limited testing. No overall number of tests has been reported but a judge in New York has ordered officials there to report twice a week on tests of inmates at the federal detention centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. As of Thursday, the Manhattan federal jail recorded six inmates tested — including five positive tests — out of about 700, with 12 staff infected. The Brooklyn facility said 11 prisoners were tested, with three found infected, out of about 1700, with nine staff testing positive.

Speaking of which he knows well, Shon Hopwood had this timely commentary at The Appeal fittingly titled "Don’t Look to the DOJ to Keep Federal Prisons and Their Surrounding Communities Safe During the COVID-19 Pandemic."  Here are excerpts:

Attorney General William Barr issued a memorandum instructing the Bureau of Prisons to expand its use of home confinement and release some of its most vulnerable prisoners, while acknowledging that the Bureau is facing “emergency conditions” that are “materially affecting” its operations. 

But don’t look to the DOJ to release enough people to make prisons and their surrounding communities safe.  The DOJ’s new policy only applies to people in the lowest security levels. It is uncertain whether the DOJ will release people convicted of violent offenses, even if they are high risk and have only a few months or days remaining on their sentences.  And without providing some sort of categorial relief, the DOJ’s process for releasing people to home confinement will not come fast enough.  If the DOJ releases only a few thousand people, its prisons will continue to serve as COVID-19 petri dishes....

As a former federal prisoner who now works in the public eye as a law professor, I hear the worst of what some think about people in prison.  Some will say that if you did the crime, you should serve the time — even if, as a result of COVID-19, it becomes a death sentence. That view of human worth is inconsistent with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and with the important value that even those who have committed crimes, like me, deserve a second chance.  If someone is vulnerable or has less than a year to serve on their prison sentence (regardless of the crime they committed), their sentence should not be retroactively converted into a death sentence simply because the DOJ is unable to keep its prisons safe. 

A few of many prior related posts:

April 10, 2020 at 10:57 AM | Permalink


It is interesting that this piece mentions the Special Housing Unit at FCI - Cumberland, Maryland, where I spent about 6 months and was incarcerated on 9/11/2011! Because FCI - Cumberland, Maryland is only about 90 miles south of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where a United Airlines plane went nose down into the ground after the passengers fought back, the inmates were locked on their living units for the day, where like most other Americans we watched events unfold on television. I spent a few months living in the SHU at FCI - Cumberland, Maryland and could tell you several interesting stories about what goes on there. For purposes of commenting on this piece, let me point out that in SHU, which has several hallways (called "ranges"), inmates are housed in 2-man concrete and steel cells 23+ hours per day, and there is a toilet and shower in each cell. Food is delivered 3 times per day thru the food port in the steel cell door. Thus, there would seem to be few if any real risks of transmitting the disease from quarantined COVID-19 positive inmates to COVID-negative inmates, who are waiting 14 days to go home. This would be particularly safe if the two classes of inmates are housed on separate ranges (different hallways) inside the SHU. When I was housed in the SHU at Cumberland, I reported a notorious incident via sealed legal mail, thru my attorney, to the Central Office of the BOP. A female Case Manager had come to SHU to get an illegal alien Mexican to sign some legal papers. He had no family in the United States to visit him or advocate for him. She opened his food port and placed the papers on the open port, for him to take and sign (with a flexible rubber pen, 4" long, for safety. Instead, the inmate began masturbating towards the woman through the open food port. Her Incident Report stated that she told him 14 times to stop masturbating, before he ejaculated on her hand and pants. The Lieutenant would later as her why she didn't just close the food port, lock it, and walk away! That woman's boyfriend was also a guard at the prison. He soon came over to SHU from the compound and was admitted to SHU, although he had no business there. He entered the Mexican inmate's locked cell, without first cuffing him thru the food port, and beat the shit out of him in the cell. The assistant Warden later went in an ambulance to the hospital with the inmate, for medical treatment and stitches. After being returned to SHU, the inmate was repeatedly retaliated against by BOP staff. At one point, a staff member planted a shank in the man's shampoo bottle in his cell while he was away for his hour per day of outdoor recreation. After the man returned to his cell from rec., staff searched his cell and "found" the shank that they had planted. They then wrote him a 100 series incident report, which was certain to get him transferred to a U.S. Pentitentiary. This man could not even speak English, but other Hispanic inmates translated for us at outdoor recreation, so that I could write a complaint to the Central Office about what had been done and was being done to him. I sent the Complaint to my attorney, thru sealed legal mail, to be forwarded to the Drrector of the Bureau of Prisons. On another morning in SHU there, a staff member awakened all of the inmates at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning by blasting the song (from a Boom Box) "Back in Black" over the SHU's P.A. system.

Posted by: James Gormley | Apr 10, 2020 1:30:13 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB