Judge rips feds over prison quarantine policies
Pre-release holds on inmates at prisons hit hard by the coronavirus are ‘Kafkaesque,’ the New York-based judge says.
A prison in New York City operated by federal Bureau of Prisons. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
By JOSH GERSTEIN
04/20/2020 04:17 PM EDT
A federal judge in New York has slammed the federal Bureau of Prisons for what she contends are “illogical” and “Kafkaesque” quarantine policies that put inmates and the community at greater risk of contracting coronavirus.
U.S. District Court Judge Alison Nathan, in a decision dated Sunday, excoriated federal officials over their practice of putting inmates considered or approved for early release into a pre-release quarantine before they are sent home. The period typically lasts 14 days, but the judge noted that it can be extended, potentially repeatedly, if another inmate in the same group tests positive for the virus.
Nathan delivered the stinging rebuke of the federal prisons’ policy as she ordered the immediate release of Gerard Scparta, a former New York Police Department officer who pleaded guilty last year to involvement in a Social Security disability fraud scheme.
“In these circumstances, community spread through individuals not showing symptoms is inevitable, including in units of inmates who have been approved for home confinement,” Nathan wrote. “This is an illogical and self-defeating policy that appears to be inconsistent with the directive of the Attorney General, ungrounded in science, and a danger to both Mr. Scparta and the public health of the community.”
Last month, Attorney General William Barr ordered federal prisons to step up releases to home confinement because of the danger that Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, poses to elderly inmates and others with serious health conditions.
At the time, Barr said prisoners set for transfer to home confinement would be held at least 14 days to be confident they weren’t transmitting the virus into the community. But on April 3, as outbreaks of Covid-19 intensified at several federal prisons, Barr issued another directive relaxing that stricture.
Nathan said in her decision that it was unclear how or whether that new guidance was being implemented. She ruled in response to a request brought by Scparta, 55, who was serving an 18-month sentence at a federal prison in Butner, N.C., among those hardest hit by the virus.
Nathan noted that despite Barr’s shift, prosecutors said authorities at Butner had “not been exercising case-by-case discretion” to release inmates before completing the 14-day quarantine.
“The BOP’s policy therefore makes it likely that inmates approved for home confinement will not be released; as the virus spreads in the unit, the 14-day clock will repeatedly restart, perpetually prolonging incarceration,” wrote Nathan, an appointee of President Barack Obama. “If they are released, they may well be positive and asymptomatic, thus endangering the broader community.”
“Mr. Scparta is currently stuck in the bizarre limbo of the Bureau of Prisons’ quarantine policy, which, as the Court has discussed, achieves the backward result of prolonging incarceration and increasing community spread,” she added.
Spokespeople for Barr did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the judge’s criticism. A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
According to prosecutors, Scparta was put into a pre-release quarantine on April 10, but on April 14 one of his fellow prisoners tested positive for the virus. As a result, the clock for Scparta’s group was reset and he isn’t considered eligible for release until April 28.
Nathan acknowledged that her ruling Sunday was at odds with one she issued in another case last week. She said then that she lacked authority to transfer a convict to home confinement because he had a pending release request with the Bureau of Prisons and had not exhausted that process.
However, the judge said a decision to the contrary by one of her colleagues had convinced her that was not a strict requirement under the circumstances.
Scparta pleaded guilty last year to felony charges of theft of public funds and tax evasion for applying for and receiving Social Security disability benefits while receiving $1.3 million for working as a bouncer and host at the Hustler strip club in Manhattan between 2004 and 2017.
Scparta has served about seven months of his sentence and was set for release in December, according to the Bureau of Prisons website.
Under the terms of her “compassionate release” order, Scparta must now observe a 14-day quarantine at his home.
As of Sunday, 22 federal prisoners have died from Covid-19, while 495 inmates and 309 staff have tested positive for the virus, according to statistics on the federal prisons’ website. A total of 65 prisoners at Butner have been diagnosed with the virus, giving that complex the second-highest tally of inmate infections at federal prisons after Yazoo City, Miss.
While Nathan said in her decision that prisoners could be “perpetually” stuck in quarantine under the current arrangement, 1,280 federal prisoners have been sent to home confinement since Barr told authorities to increase use of that option last month, the prisons’ site says.
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