By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared on Friday that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is facing emergency conditions due to the fast-spreading coronavirus, paving the way for the agency to begin releasing more inmates out of custody and into home confinement.
Barr said under his emergency order, priority for releasing vulnerable inmates into home confinement should be given first to those housed in federal prisons that have been hardest hit by COVID-19, including facilities such as Oakdale in Louisiana, Elkton in Ohio and Danbury in Connecticut.
Barr's order comes after five inmates at FCI Oakdale 1 and two at FCI Elkton 1 died from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
The BOP said Friday that 91 inmates and 50 of its staff throughout its 122 institutions have fallen ill with COVID-19. Union officials and families of prisoners have told Reuters they believe the number of people sickened with the virus is much higher.
Earlier this week, the BOP took the unprecedented step of ordering all of its facilities to place inmates into a 14-day quarantine by confining them to their cells or living quarters.
The $2 trillion stimulus bill signed by President Donald Trump last week included a provision designed to make it easier for federal prisons to release more inmates into home confinement to help control the coronavirus outbreak. Prior to the stimulus law, the BOP could release to home confinement only inmates who had already served at least 90% of their sentence or had no more than six months left to go.
The new law allows the BOP director greater discretion to release a larger cohort of inmates. But it required that Barr first declare a state of emergency for the federal prison system.
"For all inmates whom you deem suitable candidates for home confinement, you are directed to immediately process them for transfer and then immediately transfer them following a 14-day quarantine," Barr directed the BOP in a memo released late Friday.
Criminal-justice advocates have warned for months that U.S. jails and prison are potential hothouses for infection. Inmates live in close quarters, share bathrooms and dining halls, and often have limited access to health care.
Many have been critical of Barr for not taking action sooner to release more inmates from jails and prisons - a move that some states like New York and California have shown a greater willingness to do.
Earlier on Friday, Reuters reported that federal prosecutors around the country in recent weeks have fought back against a variety of efforts by inmates to be released, even temporarily, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In court filings, prosecutors have urged judges to deny release on bond to defendants who are in jail awaiting trial and suggested that some inmates with pre-existing medical conditions would be safer in prison than at home, among other arguments.
U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler cheered Barr's order on Friday, saying it was a much-needed action to help lower the prison population amid the pandemic.
"This is a positive development, and I urge appropriate and swift use of this power," Nadler said in a statement.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Sandra Maler, Leslie Adler and Jane Wardell)