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Federal public defender discouraged by resistance to inmate release as virus spreads in U.S. prison system

Some rulings blocking the release of federal inmates are ‘short-sighted,’ defender says; two prison staff members who tested positive work at the MCC, according to a source.

This photo shows the Metropolitan Correctional Center Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, in Chicago. Two convicted bank robbers used a knotted rope or bed sheets to escape from the federal prison window high above downtown Chicago early Tuesday, a week after one of them made a courtroom vow of retribution, to federal judge. The escape occurred sometime between 5 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. when the inmates were discovered missing, Chicago Police Sgt. Mark Lazarro said. Hours later, what appeared to be a rope, knotted at six-foot intervals, could be seen dangling into an alley from a window of the Metropolitan Correctional Center approximately 20 stories above the ground. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
The Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago.
AP

The first coronavirus case had yet to surface at the Cook County Jail one week ago, when the public defender began her push for the release of at-risk inmates. By Friday morning, 38 cases had been confirmed there, and judges were considering who should go free.

It’s been a different story for federal detainees, though. U.S. judges have pointed to the lack of an outbreak at the Metropolitan Correctional Center and other facilities to deny release to defendants who have sought to get out of jail because of the virus.

That’s been discouraging to John Murphy, executive director of the Federal Defender Program in the Northern District of Illinois. In an interview Friday with the Chicago Sun-Times, he even called it “deeply short-sighted.”

Then, hours after Murphy’s interview, the Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed two staff members in Chicago had tested positive for the virus. The staff members are employees at the MCC, according to a source.

“My assumption is that it’s already in the jails,” Murphy said in his interview. “It just hasn’t been diagnosed yet.”

Kevin Lasley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3652 at the MCC, said one of the two staff members had been on self-quarantine for nearly two weeks after being exposed at a social event. The other has been away from the institution for about a week.

The federal courts in Chicago have largely been put on hold since March 16 under a temporary order from U.S. Chief District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer. But some activity continues, including among lawyers who have hoped to secure their clients’ release as the coronavirus spreads.

Pallmeyer declined an interview request Friday. Through a spokeswoman, she pointed to her order and added, “the court continues to closely monitor the situation and is following guidelines from federal and local health authorities.”

For now, Murphy said his office has focused on trying to help clients who would be most vulnerable and at-risk should there be a coronavirus outbreak at the MCC. In his interview, Murphy said the virus has created “a difficult situation for everybody,” and he said, “I think the court’s handled it very responsibly.”

But he said he is “not thrilled” with certain rulings in individual cases. He didn’t rule out a broader push for the release of certain inmates, similar to the effort by Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli. The cooperative effort by Campanelli, state court judges and prosecutors has led to the release of hundreds of county jail inmates so far.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases among staff and inmates within the Federal Bureau of Prisons continues to grow nationwide. On Friday morning, the BOP had reported confirmed cases among 10 inmates and eight staff members. Later in the day, the numbers grew to 14 inmates and 13 staff, including the two staff members in Chicago.

The most prominent MCC inmate to ask for release has been R&B singer R. Kelly. His lawyers acknowledged that much of a motion filed Thursday seeking his release “is from a template circulated by the federal defender program.”

The filings from Kelly and other defendants have described a detention facility that houses about 700 people. Most of them are housed in two-person cells, with a shared toilet and sink, and they spend most of their time in “dayrooms.”

Defense attorneys have complained that, when they last visited, MCC staff members were “not wearing face masks” and only a few officers were wearing gloves. Officials have said the MCC has largely been under lockdown since March 13.

In a statement, a BOP spokesman said the agency, “has instituted a comprehensive management approach that includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures.”

“All cleaning, sanitation, and medical supplies have been inventoried at the BOP’s facilities, including MCC Chicago, and currently has an ample supply … on hand that is ready to be distributed or moved to any facility as deemed necessary,” the statement read.

Meanwhile, judges are not the only ones who have resisted the release of inmates over the coronavirus. Federal prosecutors have also opposed requests, arguing “the specter of a COVID-19 outbreak is not a fire alarm that defendants can pull because they wish to get out of jail.”

Contributing: Andy Grimm