HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A judge in Connecticut has ruled that officials at the federal prison in Danbury are not moving fast enough to protect inmates from the coronavirus and has ordered authorities to implement a process by Friday to move as many prisoners as possible to home confinement.
U.S. District Judge Michael Shea in Hartford issued the order Tuesday in a class-action lawsuit filed by four Danbury inmates, who say prison officials are not taking seriously a directive in early April from Attorney General William Barr to maximize transfers to home confinement.
Congress gave prison officials authority on March 27 to transfer inmates to home confinement to protect them. The four Danbury inmates, three women and a man, all have health conditions that place them at greater risk for developing serious complications from COVID-19.
“The four inmates ... have made a preliminary showing that officials at FCI Danbury are making only limited use of their home confinement authority, as well as other tools at their disposal to protect inmates during the outbreak,” Shea wrote in his ruling, “and that these failures amount to deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to inmates in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”
Prisons across the country are dealing with significant virus outbreaks.
At Danbury, the Bureau of Prisons says 75 inmates and 57 staff have contracted the virus, and one inmate died. The prison houses about 1,000 inmates.
The Bureau of Prisons said in a statement Wednesday that it does not comment on pending legal cases. The agency added it immediately began a review of which inmates are suitable for home confinement in response to Barr’s directives. Barr’s April 3 directive specifically referred to the Danbury prison and federal prisons in Oakdale, Louisiana, and Lisbon, Ohio.
Since Barr’s directives, the Bureau of Prisons says it has placed nearly 2,500 inmates in home confinement.
The four inmates say the only way to contain the virus in the prisons is to decrease their populations. They say social distancing is currently not possible.
“Most of the inmates at FCI Danbury live in large, open dormitories with 50 or more other inmates, where they sleep within 3 to 4 feet of between 3 and 5 other prisoners,” Shea wrote in his 74-page ruling.
“Prisoners use the same bathrooms and share a limited number of toilets, sinks, and showers, as well as a limited number of telephones and computers, which are located close together in common areas,” he wrote, adding prisoners also say they are forced to line up in close proximity to each other to receive meals and medications.
Shea imposed a strict schedule for prison officials to implement a process for determining whether certain inmates can be moved to home confinement. By Friday, officials must provide the judge with a list of medically vulnerable inmates and implement a plan to release as many as possible to home confinement.
Within two weeks, prison officials must complete reviews of inmate requests for transfer to home confinement and provide Shea explanations for denials of such requests.
In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, federal prosecutors said the implications of the court orders requested by the inmates would be “staggering” because it would allow judges to commute the sentences of hundreds of prisoners.
Prosecutors said the inmates also presented a “distorted picture” of efforts at the Danbury prison to protect prisoners, saying prison officials have made “significant efforts” to respond to the virus.