ACLU, Federal Government In Court Battle Over Elkton Inmate Releases

photo of federal courthouse in Cleveland
The case is being heard by Northern Ohio District Court Judge James S. Gwin. [John McLenaghan / shutterstock]
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The ACLU of Ohio is challenging the federal government’s progress transferring inmates out of a federal prison south of Youngstown in response to a coronavirus outbreak there.

U.S. District Judge James S. Gwin ordered the release or transfer of hundreds of inmates from Elkton Federal Correction Institution in April.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons created a list of 837 inmates – which includes former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora – who are older than 65 or have medical conditions making them vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Elkton is a low-security prison that has dormitory-style housing,” said David Carey, senior attorney for the ACLU of Ohio and a co-counsel in the case. “That means they’re tightly packed together in the sleeping areas. That means when they pass each other in the hallway, they turn sideways to pass each other.”

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice and overseer federal prisons, there are 97 confirmed coronavirus cases and eight inmates have died of the virus at Elkton.

After a federal judge ordered the government to make arrangements to move medically vulnerable inmates from the minimum security prison, the government identified five people who are eligible for home confinement and one for early release on medical grounds.

The names of those inmates were not released.

Six inmates, Carey said, is not enough.

“We are going to investigate further to find out why it is the government came up with such a small list of people and see if we can follow up and do anything about it,” Carey said.

The government argues it is following the law on who is eligible for early release. They challenged Gwin’s decision to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and lost. U.S. Attorney for the Northern District Justin Herdman argued that the government has taken several steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including limiting movement in the prison and isolating confirmed cases.

The ACLU argues that the federal government hasn’t explored transferring inmates who can’t be released to other prisons.

The prisons bureau’s argument is that transferring hundreds of inmates between prisons would be too difficult.

On Thursday, the bureau announced it is expanding rapid testing at its prisons, but did not identify which prisons would receive additional tests.

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