On October 11, 2022, the federal court for the Central District of California approved a settlement resolving a suit over COVID-19 precautions and releases filed by prisoners at the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) in Lompoc, California, in May 2020.
That was shortly after the pandemic hit the U.S., and the prisoners filed their habeas action under 28 U.S.C. § 224, raising Eighth Amendment claims over the response to the outbreak by officials with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Plaintiffs sought an “expedited process for reviewing medically vulnerable inmates at Lompoc for home confinement,” as well as injunctive relief requiring BOP to implement measures to limit the spread of the disease.
The Court granted the suit class-action status in July 2020. After considering the factors of numerosity, commonality, typicality and adequacy of representation laid out in Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a), it certified a class consisting of all FCC Lompoc prisoners over 50 years old or with specified conditions making them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Plaintiffs also moved for a preliminary injunction requiring prison officials to implement protocols for early release to home confinement under the CARES Act, arguing that this would alleviate overcrowding that made social distancing at the prison nearly impossible.
As PLN reported, the preliminary injunction was granted, and BOP was ordered to identify and notify all class members eligible for early release, taking into account their age and risk factors for COVID-19, and processing their eligibility within 30 days. Further, on August 27, 2021, BOP was ordered to re-evaluate any class member who had been denied release to home confinement due to his amount of time served or prior offense. [See: PLN, Oct. 2021, p.54.]
A year later, on August 30, 2022, the parties filed a joint notice seeking final approval of a settlement in the case. Per its terms, Defendants agreed to “make full and speedy use of BOP’s CARES Act authority to review members of the Settlement Class for transfer to home confinement,” and to refrain from denying home confinement based on amount of time served or prior offense “without other good cause.” Denials of home confinement for eligible prisoners must be explained in detail. The parties’ joint notice stated that as of July 7, 2022, 241 prisoners at FCC Lompoc had been released to home confinement.
With respect to COVID-19 prevention measures, the settlement required BOP to provide testing, perform daily symptom checks for prisoners placed in quarantine, screen employees assigned to medical units for COVID-19 symptoms and make “medical isolation in the SHU [Secure Housing Unit] for COVID-19 ‘operationally distinct’ from disciplinary or restricted housing.” Further, BOP was to provide monthly compliance reports to class counsel.
The settlement did not include any monetary damages, and it was scheduled to terminate either on December 17, 2022 – the date the COVID-19 emergency declaration under the National Emergencies Act ended – or when the Attorney General decided that emergency conditions due to COVID-19 “no longer materially affect the functioning” of BOP, whichever occurred first.
A number of objections to the proposed settlement were filed by class members, many based on individual requests for early release. The class was represented by prisoners Richard Garries and Andrew Ybarra, who were appointed by the Court. Following a hearing, the district court overruled the objections and approved the settlement on October 11, 2022, finding it fair, reasonable and adequate. The court also granted class counsel’s unopposed motion for attorneys’ fees, awarding $375,000 that was requested, less than half the cost of the hours counsel had actually worked in the case.
The class was represented by attorneys with the Los Angeles firms of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, and Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks, Lincenberg & Rhow, P.C.; the Prison Law Office in Berkeley; and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California. See: Garries v. Milusaic, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:20-cv-04450.
In August 2023, COVID-19 was still claiming the lives of about 700 Americans every week, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency recommended that “everyone 6 months and older get an updated COVID-19 vaccine to protect against the potentially serious outcomes of COVID-19 illness this fall and winter.”
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