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Sixth Circuit Vacates Preliminary Injunction Regarding Elkton Prisoner Class Action

On June 9, 2020, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a split decision, vacated a preliminary injunction issued by a district court that directed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to determine which prisoners at Elkton Federal Correctional Institution Elkton were eligible for transfer or release because of a serious COVID-19 outbreak at that facility in Lisbon, Ohio.

Although the appeals court agreed that the district court had the authority to consider the matter under 28 U.S.C. 2241, and the complaint was not foreclosed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, it agreed that the BOP had responded “reasonably” to the outbreak and that its actions did not give rise to an Eighth Amendment claim for “deliberate indifference.”

As noted in the June 2020 PLN, prisoners had won initial class certification after they argued that there was a “significant level of infection” of the virus at Elkton.

Attorney General William Barr directed federal BOP Director Michael Carvajal on April 3, 2020 to “move with dispatch” to save vulnerable prisoners, using “appropriate transfers to home confinement.”

Another similar lawsuit filed against the BOP regarding the infectious disease at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, which did not seek an injunction, resulted in a settlement that meant transfers and releases to reduce the prisoner population.

However, class action certification was denied prisoners at FCI Oakdale in Louisiana, who in a similar case argued that the level of illness due to the virus, which had resulted in a number of prisoner deaths, was also due to “deliberate indifference.”

In the Sixth Circuit case, the dissent stated that the BOP’s various mitigation programs were much more impressive on paper than in reality, and that it had failed to follow Barr’s recommendations, The court also focused on grim facts not addressed in the majority opinion, noting that “six inmates at the prison had already died, and more clung to life only with the aid of ventilators, all while the BOP failed to take action to allow the 837 medically vulnerable inmates in its charge at Elkton to follow public health guidelines by maintaining an appropriate distance between themselves and their fellow inmates.”

The dissent went on to say, “[The fact that] ineffective measures here came in the form of multiple actions instead of a single one does not excuse the BOP’s choice to ignore methods that address this ‘cornerstone’ of respiratory-disease management. That failure is more jarring when one considers that both Congress and Attorney General Barr went out of their way to urge the BOP to take more aggressive measures to address the virus in its facilities.”

Nonetheless, federal district courts across the country have released scores of prisoners under the First Step Act of 2018, and the CARES Act of 2020, which gave judges the authority to release prisoners or transfer them to home confinement for a variety of reasons, including susceptibility to COVID-19.

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