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After Six COVID-19 Deaths, Judge Orders Elkton Prison To Transfer At-Risk Inmates

Federal Correctional Institution Elkton in Lisbon, Ohio.
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Federal Correctional Institution Elkton in Lisbon, Ohio.

A federal judge has ordered that officials at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution identify which inmates are eligible to transfer out due to the spread of COVID-19 within the prison.

The ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center filed a class action lawsuitApril 16 to press for the early release of some of the 2,400 inmates at the federal prison south of Youngstown. At least six inmates have died there from COVID-19, while 52 inmates and 48 staff have tested positive.

Judge James Gwin on Wednesday granted a preliminary injunction that requires Federal Bureau of Prisons officials to identify all medically vulnerable prisoners who can be released. 

Under the injunction, prison officials will have to evaluate prisoners’ eligibility for a transfer, including compassionate release, parole or community supervision. Inmates could also get a transfer out of Elkton to another prison, either on a temporary or permanent basis.

Older prisoners with heart, pulmonary, diabetes or immunity risks should be first in line for release, Gwin writes. Officials must also quarantine inmates for 14 days before their transfer.

“Countless lives will be saved as a result of this order," said ACLU of Ohio attorney David Carey. "Even since we filed our class action the death toll at Elkton has doubled. Judge Gwin was absolutely correct in recognizing the dire situation at Elkton and we are eager to assist and facilitate the release of the members of the medically vulnerable class."

In his decision, Gwin criticized the prison's failure to provide enough testing as a "debacle," and said the prison's social distancing efforts are inadequate. Elkton officials have failed to keep inmates separated by at least six feet, Gwin wrote, "despite clear CDC guidance for some time that such measures are necessary to stop the spread and save lives."

He also said the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on an Eighth Amendment claim that Elkton failed to protect inmates from "cruel and unusual punishment."

"While Respondents offer certain prison-practice changes to show they know COVID-19 risks and have sought to reduce those risks, the Court still finds that, at this preliminary stage of the litigation, the Petitioners have sufficiently met the threshold for showing that Respondents have been deliberately indifferent," Gwin writes.

Debbie Holmes began her career in broadcasting in Columbus after graduating from The Ohio State University. She left the Buckeye state to pursue a career in television news and worked as a reporter and anchor in Moline, Illinois and Memphis, Tennessee.