WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused the Trump administration's request Tuesday to block a lower court order demanding increased efforts against the spread of the coronavirus at a low-security federal prison in Ohio.
The high court's action represented its most significant intervention to date related to the deadly impact of COVID-19 inside federal prisons.
The low-security Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in northeast Ohio faces a potential large-scale transfer of elderly, medically vulnerable inmates to less dangerous types of custody, including home release, under a federal court order. As many as 837 inmates could be affected out of a total prison population of some 2,500.
The high court refused to put the evaluation of those elderly, medically vulnerable inmates on hold at the request of the Trump administration, "without prejudice to the government seeking a new stay if circumstances warrant." Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch would have granted the administration's request.
Across the country, state and federal prisons have become a hotbed of coronavirus infections. Hundreds of prisoners and several dozen prison staff have died, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents four Elkton inmates in the Ohio case.
The outbreaks within the federal prison system have drawn the scrutiny of Attorney General William Barr, who has dispatched teams to examine conditions at the hardest-hit facilities, including prisons in Louisiana, Ohio, North Carolina and California.
Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal defended the agency's response to the increasingly deadly COVID-19 outbreak earlier this month, saying recent inmate testing revealing infection rates as high as 70% are "in no way representative" of conditions across the system.