(Reuters) - A divided federal appeals court on Tuesday overturned a ruling that directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to move up to 837 potentially at-risk prisoners out of a federal prison in Ohio due to concerns about the health risks of the coronavirus
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by a 2-1 vote said a lower-court judge abused his discretion in issuing a preliminary injunction in favor of a group of inmates housed in the low-security Elkton Federal Correctional Institution.
Lawyers for the four inmates who filed the proposed class action in April had argued their confinement in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
U.S. District Judge James Gwin in Cleveland agreed and issued a preliminary injunction on April 22 requiring BOP to identify inmates eligible for transfer out of Elkton, including through compassionate release.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor last week had stayed the district court’s injunction so the 6th Circuit could hear BOP’s appeal of the ruling.
U.S. Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, writing for the majority on Tuesday, said the inmates were unlikely to succeed in establishing a violation of their rights as BOP has “responded reasonably to the known, serious risks posed by COVID-19.”
Gibbons said BOP had taken a series of steps to minimize the risk by implementing measures to screen inmates, isolating and quarantining ones who contracted the virus, limiting their movements, cleaning cells and providing masks to inmates.
”We conclude that petitioners have not provided sufficient evidence to show that the BOP was deliberately indifferent to the serious risk of harm presented by COVID-19 at Elkton,” she wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which represented the inmates, expressed disappointment with the ruling, noting it came as one of every four people incarcerated at Etkon have tested positive for COVID-19 and nine have died.
”Today’s ruling is a major loss for incarcerated people who are at risk from this deadly disease,” said David Carey, an ACLU lawyer, said in a statement.
The U.S. Justice Department had no immediate comment.
U.S. Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole dissented, saying Gwin’s preliminary injunction was justified to address an “urgent problem.”
He said BOP had adopted a series of “ineffective measures” that did not provide for meaningful social distancing and chose “to ignore methods that address this ‘cornerstone’ of respiratory-disease management.”
Cole said its failure to do so was “jarring” given that Attorney General William Barr in April directed BOP to maximize transfers of prisoners to home confinement at Elkton and other facilities where COVID-19 was impacting operations.
Cole said that current data suggests that of the 78 federal inmate deaths since March nationwide due to the virus, nearly 8% occurred at Elkton, even though it houses less than 2% of all inmates, during just the first month of the outbreak.
”The measures the BOP took to address the virus, along with those it failed to take, lead me to the conclusion that it did not respond reasonably to the outbreak of COVID-19 at Elkton,” he wrote.
The case is Wilson, et al, v. Williams, et al, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-3447.
For the inmates: David Carey of the ACLU of Ohio Foundation
For BOP: Sarah Carroll of the U.S. Justice Department