Supreme Court blocks order to remove inmates at prison infected with COVID-19

Pete Williams

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked a federal judge's order that required the government to begin moving more than 800 inmates from an Ohio prison who are at risk of catching the COVID-19 virus.

In a brief, order signed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor with no noted dissent, the court gave the Trump administration more time to challenge the judge's order in the lower courts.

Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Lisbon, Ohio. (Federal Bureau of Prisons)

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing four inmates at the low-security Elkton Federal Correctional Institution near Canton, said at least one-fifth of the prison population is infected with COVID-19 and nine prisoners have died. But the inmates say the prison is simply unable, based on how it's configured, to allow the required remediation.

"Social distancing is literally impossible in Elkton's 150-person communal units," the ACLU told the Supreme Court. The 844 inmates identified as elderly and medically vulnerable "are being compelled to live at grave risk of contagion." Their beds and sinks are close together, and they must stand in tightly grouped lines for meals, the lawsuit said.

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In two separate orders in April and May, a federal judge ordered the Bureau of Prisons to examine the list of 800-plus inmates and determine which could be moved to home confinement, shifted to another prison or given compassionate release.

The Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to put the judge's ruling on hold, arguing that having to move so many prisoners would threaten public safety and could require moving some inmates into higher-security prisons or farther away from their families. The prison has done its best to cope with the pandemic, cleaning common areas every day with disinfectant, providing inmates with face masks and staggering meal times to reduce crowding.

The court last month brushed aside the Justice Department's first attempt to block the release order but left the door open for the government to try again. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said then that the court should have stopped the release.