Federal prison authorities have again changed the criteria used to consider inmates for early release, with the latest move broadening the set of prisoners eligible to be sent home on account of the dangers posed by the coronavirus.
Just days after many inmates who had been in pre-release quarantine were stunned to be told they did not qualify due to a policy change, the Bureau of Prisons issued new guidance saying at least some of those prisoners could be considered for home confinement.
The new standard opens the door to such releases for prisoners who have served at least 25 percent of their sentences and who have less than 18 months remaining on their term. Earlier in the week, prison officials and federal prosecutors told inmates and judges that the Bureau of Prisons was only considering home confinement for inmates who had served at least half of their sentence.
Inmate advocates said the effect of the change would be modest, permitting the release of about 200 additional prisoners serving relatively short federal sentences. Authorities reported Thursday that about 1,500 inmates were sent to home confinement as the Covid-19 crisis escalated, out of about 171,000 federal prisoners.
The latest revision could be of help to some high-profile inmates, but disappointing to others.
Under the new criteria, a former personal lawyer to President Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, could be eligible for home confinement next month on the three-year sentence he is serving.
However, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort — serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison term — would likely not qualify for home confinement for another year or more.
Kevin Ring, of the criminal justice reform group FAMM, said he welcomed the latest change, but said the abrupt U-turns were cruel to inmates and their families.
“This awful episode will not be resolved until the hundreds of people who had their home confinement dates revoked are sent home, too,” he said.
Ring also pleaded with officials not to make those inmates enter another 14-day pre-release quarantine.
“Those families should not have to wait a day longer. Their loved ones can be sent home to quarantine,” he said.
Attorney General William Barr initially insisted on such measures as a way to prevent transmission of the virus into the community, but earlier this month gave prison officials the authority to let inmates quarantine at home on a “case-by-case” basis.
Barr’s earlier directives seemed to have caused confusion at the Bureau of Prisons, resulting in inmates across the country being notified Monday that they were being removed from quarantine because they were no longer eligible for relief because they had not served half their sentences.
One federal prosecutor told a judge in Manhattan Wednesday that she was unable to comply with an order to detail the standards due to “uncertainty” over the policies in force. On Thursday, the government submitted an affidavit from a federal prison official in Miami, Jennifer Broton, describing the shift to the new standard allowing home confinement for inmates who have completed as little as 25 percent of their sentences, if they have 18 months or less left to serve. Those who’ve served 50 percent and have more than 18 months left can still be considered, she said.
Broton stressed that those standards simply set priorities for the agency and “are subject to deviation in BOP’s discretion in certain circumstances and are subject to revision as the situation progresses.”
Inmates are also generally disqualified from home confinement if they have a history of violence, were convicted of sex or terrorism offenses, had a disciplinary violation in prison in the past year or fail to get the lowest-level score on a computerized assessment of recidivism chances, she said.
Broton also disclosed that the inmate involved in the Manhattan case, Lewis Stahl, was set to be sent home Friday and would be permitted to observe his 14-day quarantine there.
Separately, federal prison officials announced Thursday that they are ramping up what had previously been scant testing of inmates for Covid-19.
The Bureau of Prisons said it received 10 Abbott rapid testing machines and 264 test kits on April 10 and expects to receive another 10 machines next week.
“The deployment of these additional resources will be based on facility need to contain widespread transmission and the need for early, aggressive interventions required to slow transmission at facilities with a high number of at-risk inmates such as medical referral centers,” the statement said.
The announcement followed an injunction issued Wednesday by a federal judge requiring transfer or release of “vulnerable” inmates at a federal prison in Lisbon, Ohio, that has seen a serious outbreak of the virus, including the deaths of six prisoners.
U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin called testing there “shockingly limited” and “paltry” in the face of signs of widespread infection. He noted that the prison, known as Elkton, had received fewer than 100 tests while a nearby state prison of a similar size had done about 4,000 tests.
Two federal prisons in New York City, the biggest hotspot for infections in the U.S., reported Thursday they have tested a total of 19 inmates since the outbreak began. Eleven were positive.
Thus far, 620 federal inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus and 24 have died. The number of reported prisoner infections could rise sharply in the coming days as testing increases, the bureau said.
Federal prosecutors opposed the order to release or transfer Elkton inmates, but no appeal was immediately filed.
“We are reviewing the opinion and assessing next steps,” a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman said Thursday.