The Danbury prison
Connecticut’s lone federal prison is located in Danbury.
Connecticut’s lone federal prison is located in Danbury.

Citing a “once-in-a-century public health crisis,” a U.S. District Court judge has ordered prison officials at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury to speed up the release of inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The ruling on Tuesday night comes less than a month after attorneys filed a lawsuit seeking an emergency order to immediately transfer the prison’s most medically vulnerable inmates to home confinement, a directive issued by Attorney General William Barr twice since the onset of the pandemic.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Michael P. Shea said the impossibility of social distancing in the prison’s three separate facilities, coupled with inmates’ delayed access to medical treatment amid the outbreak and officials’ slow trickle of releases of medically vulnerable inmates, prompted him to order authorities to promptly review requests for compassionate release and inmates’ eligibility for home confinement, both of which are within the Bureau of Prisons’ statutory authority.

“Especially in light of the Barr memos, it is unimaginable that the Respondents would not be taking COVID-19 medical risk factors —some of which, by some estimates, give an inmate a better than 10% chance of dying should the inmate contract COVID-19— into consideration in reviewing inmates for home confinement,” wrote Shea. “But, at the very least, the lack of any express mention of such factors in both the inmate bulletins and the Warden’s declaration suggests that prison officials are not giving these risk factors the weight they plainly deserve. “

Court filings by federal authorities make clear the sluggish pace at which the Danbury prison has responded to the crisis. A sworn statement by Warden Diane Easter said that 159 inmates — less than 20 percent of the overall population — had been screened for home confinement as of May 5. Of those, 21 people had been released, and two have been put on furlough.

Since the outbreak began, 241 inmates had applied for compassionate release. As of May 4, no one had been approved; 136 requests had been denied, 18 had resulted in inmates being asked for additional information, 70 were still processing and 17 were awaiting the warden’s review.

“In short, by failing to make meaningful use of her home confinement authority, the Warden has failed to implement what appears to be the sole measure capable of adequately protecting vulnerable inmates —a measure the Attorney General directed the BOP to implement ‘immediately’ and with ‘dispatch’— in favor of measures that, even if they were fully and painstakingly implemented, would still leave vulnerable inmates subject to a grave risk to their health,” said Shea.

Authorities had tested 205 inmates — roughly 20 percent of the overall population — for COVID-19 as of May 5. Of those, 69 inmates and 56 staff had tested positive.

Two-thirds of tests were conducted in two days after Sen. Chris Murphy contacted the Danbury federal prison to discuss testing the incarcerated people there. After that, 143 tests were performed. Twenty people tested positive.

Officials began taking inmates’ temperatures daily on April 9. Anyone who has a temperature of 99 degrees or higher is given a follow-up assessment. The decision whether to test someone for COVID-19 is made by Bureau of Prison medical providers’ assessment of the nature and severity of the symptoms, their potential exposure to the virus and whether they have conditions that make them “high risk.”

Shea ordered Warden Easter to submit to the court a list of medically vulnerable inmates within three days. Included are individuals age 65 and older or those who have chronic lung disease like asthma or chronic bronchitis, chronic kidney disease, serious heart conditions or are immuno-compromised or are severely obese. Easter must also, within three days. implement a process “that makes full and speedy use of the home confinement authority” without arbitrarily making inmates ineligible based on their conviction, disciplinary history or the amount of time they have served.

Easter has 13 days to complete each listed inmates’ home confinement review, and must give an individualized explanation for each denial, explaining why the reasoning outweighs the danger the inmate could suffer from contracting COVID-19, and why they should not be transferred to another federal prison where it is possible to practice social distancing.

Shea approved attorneys’ request for a temporary restraining order, a short-term measure. There will be another hearing on a longer form relief on June 11.

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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