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Lawsuit: Release Prisoners in Virus Tinderbox to Home Confinement

Patrick Jones first federal prisoner to die after judge rejects plea

by David M. Reutter

A non-violent federal drug offender who pleaded for early release in the months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting America died of the disease. Patrick Jones, 49, was the first federal prisoner to die of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Jones was serving a 27-year sentence at Federal Correctional Institution Oakdale in Louisiana.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a letter to a federal court that the prison, which houses about 1,800 prisoners, is a virus tinderbox “ready to explode.” The court is overseeing a lawsuit the ACLU filed in early April that alleged the conditions at FCI Oakdale violate prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. On April 22, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit.

As of April 11, 2020, FCI Oaksdale reported that 38 prisoners and 17 staff had tested positive for coronavirus. Since March 21, six of those prisoners died. The ACLU urged a federal judge to release hundreds of FCI Oakdale prisoners to home confinement.

Attorney General William Barr instructed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) on April 3, 2020, to increase home confinement releases. “We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement, where appropriate, to move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions,” Barr wrote the BOP in a memo.

BOP officials identified only 70 prisoners who may be suitable for early home release. The ACLU said the BOP is only reviewing 100 FCI Oakdale prisoners’ cases. The civil rights organization told the court that the prison “has apparently succeeded in releasing no one except to hospitals and mortuaries.”

Home confinement increased 40%, the BOP said, noting that an additional 566 prisoners had been released since March. The ACLU called BOP’s efforts at FCI Oakdale “too little, too late.”

“Men are sleeping three, four, five to a cell, less than six feet, and many are reporting that cellmates are coughing through the night,” said Somil Trivedi, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

Jones’ death is “exactly the type of case we’ll need to grapple with” in the criminal justice reform movement, said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. He noted that Jones was not a first-time drug offender, but he also wasn’t the “repeat violent offender who will never change.”

Jones was arrested after police in Temple, Texas, found 19 grams of crack and 21 grams of powder cocaine in the apartment he shared with his wife of two months. Federal prosecutors held him responsible for 425 grams of crack after his wife testified against him, saying they sold half an ounce every day from Thanksgiving 2006 until their arrest in January 2007.

The amount of the drugs, the fact the apartment was near Temple College, Jones’s role as an “organizer” for soliciting a woman’s help in selling the drugs, his decision to take his case to trial, and offenses he committed between the ages of 17 and 21 drove up the sentencing guideline range. He was originally sentenced to the minimum of 30 years, which was reduced to 27 years after sentencing guidelines were amended to reduce the disparity in treatment of crack and powder cocaine.

In an October 15, 2019, letter to U.S. District Judge Alan Albright, Jones pleaded, was remorseful and asked to be released so he could be there for his teenage son. Albright denied that request on February 26, 2020, finding that “Jones is a career offender with multiple prior offenses and a history of recidivating each time he is placed on parole.” The court noted the bulk of those offenses occurred when Jones was 17.

Just 22 days later, Jones died from coronavirus. “He spent the last 12 years contesting a sentence that ultimately killed him,” said Alison Looman, a New York attorney who represented Jones on a clemency request. See: Brandon Livas et al. v. Rodney Meyers, warden of Oakdale Federal Correctional Institutions; and Michael Carvajal, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Director, U.S.D.C. (W.D. La.), Case No. 2:20-CV-00422. 

 

Additional sources: Associated Press, nbcnews.com, themarshallproject.org