The Coronavirus pandemic has proved a relentless threat to everybody, and no less to those in prison. Fatality tolls are still rising with a deadly consistency, and there is still no indication as to whether a vaccine can be found in time or even at all. For governments all over the world who are still hard at work trying to rescue coronavirus patients while protecting everyone else, prison populations are a serious concern.
Particularly in the US, still top of the pile of countries who are the hardest hit, and which has the largest incarcerated population in the world; the COVID-19 disease has recently surged and is spreading rapidly amongst prison populations.
Conditions in prisons and correctional facilities are such that are perfect for the spread of infectious diseases like the Coronavirus. In response, officials have initiated early-release programs to decongest prisons and reduce the spread of the virus.
That means that people are getting their sentences reduced, or commuted altogether. The government has given its blessing at the federal level, and state prisons are quickly taking the initiative. Some states have already released hundreds of inmates, and are still working towards getting more people released or fast-tracked towards parole and early-release programs.
Prisoners are being sent on their way
Cases already abound where inmates have been released from prison, in some cases, to house arrest or halfway houses, or directly to the street. The various early-release programs generally deem as eligible, people who are;
- Older, less-dangerous, and at risk of the virus (including pregnant women); or
- Less-serious offenders closer to their release or parole dates;
- Sick and in need of better healthcare.
United States v. Sawicz(EDNY Apr. 10, 2020)
In United States v. Sawicz, 2020 WL 1815851,William Sawicz successfully applied for compassionate release on health grounds. He was originally sentenced on August 23, 2016 for possession of child pornography and serving a 5-year term, to be followed by five more years of supervised release which he violated. Under normal circumstances, he would have been eligible for home confinement release on August 26, 2020. Pleading his vulnerability to the COVID-19 disease in Court, he asserted that he was hypertensive; often requiring Lisinopril and Baby Aspirin. He had complained of the “significant levels of infection” at FCI Danbury and submitted a formal letter of request to the warden to be transferred to home confinement. He was ignored.
He then filed another letter with the warden, this time seeking compassionate release under the First Step Act, 18 U. S. C § 3582 (C)(1)(A)(i). Apart from the statutory provisions regarding home confinement, the First Step Act allows prisoners to move for compassionate release for “extraordinary and compelling reasons”. The applicant must ordinarily fulfill four requirements to be granted compassionate release which is that:
- The exhaustion of his administrative rights with the BOP;
- The existence, in the court’s view, of extraordinary and compelling reasons warranting his release;
- The consideration by the courts of factors set out in §3553 (a); (generally factors bordering on the gravity of the offense)
- The release is in the opinion of the court, consistent with the Sentencing Commission’s policy statements
The exhaustion requirement is not absolute; it can be waived and was waived in this case. The significant levels of COVID-19 outbreak at Danbury (uncontested by the government) and the fact that any delay would put him at risk, combined with the fact that the defendant was at risk of suffering severe complications if he were to contract COVID-19 because of his hypertension was held to justify the waiver. He was released to home confinement for 6 months and 5 years of supervised release thereafter.
It is important to note, that defendant was able to properly assert that his particular vulnerability to the COVID-19 pandemic as constituting “an extraordinary and compelling reason” for his release. Considering that this would ordinarily not fall squarely within the usual definition of “extraordinary and compelling reason”, the risk or threat of the coronavirus now seems to be extra consideration for sick or vulnerable inmates to secure release. But it was also vital for the court, in reaching its decision, to weigh these claims along with any risk or danger he posed to the society. The severity usually associated with other requirements was also commuted ostensibly given the risks posed by the coronavirus. It does appear, however, by the converse decision on similar claims in the United States v. Smith, 2020 No. 3:16-cr-48 (MPS) (D Conn. Apr. 17,2020), that the applicant’s ability to adequately prove vulnerability due tohealth risk or an underlying health condition is vital to his case.
United States v. Almonte (D. Conn. Apr. 9, 2020)
In United States v. Almonte, 2020 WL 1812713 (D. Conn. Apr. 9, 2020), Almonte’spro se motion for a reduced sentence was granted after a telephone hearing. He also made this based his motion on “extraordinary and compelling reasons” under 18 U. S. C § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). He had been serving a term of 262 months for drug-related offenses and possession of a firearm. In his case, he had exhausted his administrative rights with the BOP after they failed to bring a motion on his behalf within 30 days of the receipt by the warden of his request.
Almonte, admittedly without a life-threatening condition, was able to show that he suffered from chronic pains arising from complications linked to a broken neck and subsequent vertebrae fusion surgery. He was, at the time of the trial and in recent times prior, fast deteriorating and losing control of his legs on occasion. A condition that is substantially diminishing his ability to care for himself and which, due to the failure of the BOP to address, is not likely to improve or recover under current circumstances.
Almonte was also able to show a verifiable degree of effort and success towards his rehabilitation, providing a detailed plan for reintegration with the help of a support network. His motion was granted and sentence reduced to time served.
Securing your release
The imperative of federal officials and state governments is to prevent any implosion of the coronavirus pandemic amidst vulnerable populations like those in prison or detention centres. That generally means a relaxation of the usual rules or even compromise in deserving cases. A lot of people are getting reduced sentences or early release either directly into the community or supervised programs.
For those incarcerated in federal facilities and detention centres, you will need expert help to take due advantage of this situation. It is our responsibility here at the NLPA to assist people in either reducing their sentences or being released. With our extensive research capabilities, we can help you and your lawyer with a successful motion for early release or alternative disposition.