U.S. Court Warns of ‘Grave’ Pandemic in Prisoner Access Ruling

Erik Larson

(Bloomberg) --

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons was urged by a federal appeals court to work quickly with defense attorneys to adopt procedures for granting New York inmates’ access to lawyers during emergencies, including the potentially “grave and enduring” coronavirus outbreak.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan said in a ruling Friday that the prison bureau and the Federal Defenders of New York should find a mediator to “diligently and speedily” put a new process in place.

The case, filed last year before the pandemic hit, came in response to what the defenders said was the “severe curtailment” of their access to inmates at a jail in Brooklyn, New York. They cited emergencies including a fire, a bomb scare and staffing issues caused by a partial shutdown of the federal government.

“As we write this opinion, a different and even more dramatic challenge is presented by Covid-19, a novel and easily transmitted viral disease that has prompted a rapid reorientation of workplace practices and social life in support of public health,” the three-judge panel wrote.

The U.S. prison system has been upended by the worsening pandemic, which has sickened 260,000 worldwide and killed more than 10,000. Prisoner rights groups have urged state and federal jailers to release some non-violent detainees on bail to protect their safety, given the ability of the virus to spread quickly in confined spaces such as prisons and jails.

Read More: Jail Safer Than Outside, U.S. Says As Release Bids Mount

The panel didn’t weigh in on the merits of the lawsuit, saying the case raised “novel questions of constitutional law.” Instead, the court sent the dispute back to a district judge and urged the lower court “in the strongest possible terms” to quickly get the parties to agree to a mediator who could help work out a new policy.

The Bureau of Prisons didn’t immediately respond to a call for comment. In a statement on its website in response to the outbreak, the agency said inmates’ access to legal counsel “remains a paramount requirement.”

The agency has nevertheless suspended legal visits for 30 days, after which it will reevaluate the policy. The Trump administration has warned that disruptions from the pandemic could last months.

“Case-by-case approval at the local level and confidential legal calls will be allowed in order to ensure access to counsel,” the agency said on its website. “If approved for an in-person visit, the attorney will need to undergo screening using the same procedures as staff.”

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