Supreme Court rejects Justice Department bid to halt order aimed at slowing spread of coronavirus at Ohio prison

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The US Supreme Court is seen in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2020, during the first day of oral arguments held by telephone, a first in the Court’s history, as a result of COVID-19, known as coronavirus.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined a Justice Department request to halt a lower court order requiring new measures to slow the spread of coronavirus at an Ohio prison where nine inmates have died from Covid-19.

The top court announced its decision in an unsigned order that cited procedural matters. Three of the court’s conservatives, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, said they would have granted the request. The court said the DOJ could seek review of the order again “if circumstances warrant.”

U.S. District Judge James Gwin last month ordered the Bureau of Prisons to identify and transfer prisoners vulnerable to coronavirus at the low-security Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio.

The government identified 837 medically vulnerable inmates, but did not transfer any out of the prison, prompting Gwin last week to order the government to expedite its process. 

The Justice Department, representing the Bureau of Prisons, asked the Supreme Court to halt the original order. The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the Justice Department’s request before the court. 

In a statement, ACLU national legal director David Cole said he commended the top court “for choosing to reaffirm the rights of the people incarcerated at Elkton prison, for whom a prison sentence must not become a death sentence.” 

Justin Long, a spokesperson for the BOP, declined to comment, citing a policy against commenting on pending litigation. 

Prisons have served as fertile ground for coronavirus, which spreads quickly in indoor settings in which people are gathered in close quarters. Older individuals and those with chronic conditions are particularly vulnerable, health authorities say. 

Those at Elkton are housed “cheek by jowl, in dormitory-style rooms of approximately 150 persons each,”  Cole wrote in a brief submitted to the justices.

“Though well aware that social distancing is an indispensable means of protecting themselves, they are powerless to use it,” Cole wrote. “The result has been a severe COVID-19 outbreak lasting months, causing the deaths — so far — of at least nine people and infecting hundreds more among prisoners and staff.”

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