A judge is expected to issue an order Friday seeking the release of more than a dozen inmates at the Danbury federal prison who have been languishing in custody despite being granted home confinement during the coronavirus pandemic.
The inmates, mostly women, have been held for weeks, and in some cases months, even though they are considered medically vulnerable. This makes them eligible for home confinement, according to a motion filed Monday asking a judge to enforce a settlement agreement made with the federal Bureau of Prisons and the prison’s warden earlier this year.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Shea heard arguments late Thursday afternoon during a phone conference with attorneys for the government and the inmates. He indicated at the end of the proceeding that he would issue an order that included a release date as soon as possible and then follow up with a longer decision.
“It doesn’t appear that there is any real reason to hold these people at this point,” Shea said.
Within hours of the hearing, Shea indicated through an electronic notification that he would issue an order Friday morning requiring all 17 to be released to home confinement through regular channels or by furlough by 5 p.m. Saturday.
The release can’t come soon enough, according to attorneys for the inmates. Court documents show that a pregnant woman was repeatedly denied regular medical care including an ultrasound as she is in a dorm room with 16 other women.
An inmate whose bed was three feet from the pregnant woman exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 which weren’t addressed by staff, the documents said. The woman later tested positive and was taken to a different area of the prison, the papers said. But her items, including her half-eaten food, remained in the dorm without being cleaned or sanitized after she was taken out, the pregnant woman said.
Inmates at the Danbury prison sued based on conditions during the pandemic in April with the help of a private attorney and three law clinics. The lawsuit was settled in September with provisions to identify and release medically vulnerable inmates who had a stable place to live and who were not a public safety risk, the attorneys said.
But many of the releases never occurred based on “administrative” holdups including a faulty email system and medical file updates that took weeks, according to a statement issued by Warden Diane Easter. The federal prison system is also required to quarantine anyone slated for release for 14 days, Easter said in a declaration addressing the motion.
A recent COVID-19 outbreak at the prison prompted the attorneys to seek enforcement of the agreement to get the 17 out of prison in a timely fashion. All 17 have conditions that make them medically vulnerable according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and all have a safe place to go, said Attorney Marisol Orihuela, a clinical associate professor of law at the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School.
Conditions at the prison are deteriorating quickly, Orihuela said, with COVID-19 cases ramping up in the past two weeks to about 40 people testing positive as of Thursday. The prison had committed to doing temperature checks and monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms in a separate agreement, Orihuela said.
But those measures stopped from Nov. 23 to Dec. 7, she said. “You have people living in a congregate setting but they aren’t even abiding by those basic strategies,” Orihuela said.
In some cases, not only were the 17 inmates held for months on matters that had nothing to do with public safety, many were required to quarantine longer than 14 days before they could be released, Orihuela and Attorney Alexandra Harrington, director of the Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic at the University of Buffalo School of Law, argued before the judge.
“I don’t think that’s consistent with public safety,” Harrington said.
Two of the 17 were recently released and another two were slated to go to home confinement on Friday, said the attorneys who argued that the BOP could release the rest in 24 hours if the judge agreed to the timeline.
But Shea was concerned that it would give the prison too little time to process the releases so he expected to set a release date not too far in the future in his order and then back up the plan in a written decision. “I will get an order out sometime soon,” Shea said.