U.S. Supreme Court declines to block at-risk prisoner transfer plan

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. May 8, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to block a judge’s ruling that requires the U.S. government to evaluate moving up to 837 potentially at-risk prisoners out of a federal prison in Ohio due to concerns about the health risks of the coronavirus.

The justices rejected a request by President Donald Trump’s administration to put the lower court ruling on hold.

The brief order noted that three of the nine-member court’s conservatives – Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – would have granted the administration’s request. The court noted that the administration could renew its request at a later date.

Inmates at the Elkton Correctional Institution filed suit in April saying that the conditions at the facility in eastern Ohio violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

Cleveland-based U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin on April 22 issued a preliminary injunction backing the inmates’ claims. On May 4, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to block the ruling.

The inmates affected are more at risk from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, because they are of advanced age or have underlying health conditions, or both, according to the lawsuit.

Nine inmates had died from the virus at the facility as of May 8, according to court papers.

The Justice Department, representing the Bureau of Prisons, has said that the government already has implemented a plan to protect inmates from COVID-19 by keeping inmates separated, ramping up cleaning of the facility and providing masks, among other actions.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the inmates, has said the prisoners are housed “cheek by jowl” in dormitories of up to 150 people.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham