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Federal prisons ignore court order to release woman from Baltimore halfway house amid coronavirus concerns

The defendant served 11 months in a federal prison, and in January was transferred to an East Baltimore halfway house. With her final release date projected for late April, her attorney asked a judge to release her to home confinement and avoid potential exposure to COVID-19.

The federal judge agreed, signing an order on March 20.

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But a week later, the Bureau of Prisons has not released Erica Cook, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office instead filed motions in her case and others like it arguing judges have no authority to change the conditions of a defendant’s confinement.

Since the original motion was filed, a resident of the Volunteers of America facility where she and more than 120 others are being held was sent to a hospital and then sent home to quarantine, raising concerns that the virus could be circulating already.

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“Given all the independent and legitimate bases on which the Court can and should grant Ms. Cook’s release from the VOA, there is no reason to risk her life for purposes of honoring a (hopefully) soon-to-be-defunct practice of opposing release to home confinement for residents currently living in dangerous halfway houses,” Cook’s attorney Brian Stekloff wrote in an emergency motion filed Friday. “Ms. Cook requests that the Court act now.”

The case is one of a slew of challenges coming before the courts as lawyers and advocacy organizations seek to free prisoners from facilities where they fear an outbreak of coronavirus would spread rapidly. U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Thursday directed the Bureau of Prisons to increase the use of home confinement among older inmates with underlying conditions.

As of Friday, 14 inmates and 13 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in federal facilities.

The Volunteers of America residential re-entry facility has not had any residents test positive for COVID-19, said Candace Vanderwater, chief operating officer for Volunteers for America.

But it has 12 people who after hospital visits were sent home on “medical furlough” to quarantine. “Medical personnel are making the decision on which tests are occurring,” Vanderwater said. “Some are being tested for COVID-19, some are being tested for flu, some for pneumonia.”

None of the medical furloughs have returned from quarantine yet, though some are scheduled to next month. In the meantime, the facility is allowing residents to leave for jobs or medical appointments, but otherwise restricting movement.

“We’re just trying to keep folks calm, make sure we are following all of the social distance guidelines and the guidelines we’re getting from the CDC,” Vanderwater said. “We’re all very nervous and making sure we’re doing all of the proper procedures.”

Cook’s attorney accused VOA of failing to immediately implement such measures, leading to “dangerous and deteriorating conditions,” and says BOP’s refusal to release her is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Cook was one of 80 people charged in federal racketeering case related to corruption at the Eastern Correctional Institution, where she was a corrections officer. Cook pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy in 2017. After her eventual release she will remain on supervision for three years.

Defendants at residential re-rentry centers are at the “tail-end of their sentences” said Jim Wyda, the top federal public defender in Maryland.

“Many of them are eligible for home detention at this point. Those who aren’t are weeks away,” Wyda said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has fought, and judges have agreed, against releasing pretrial detainees, including a paraplegic man facing drug trafficking charges whose attorneys said he is particularly susceptible to illness.

In that case, U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Mark Coulson ruled that his underlying health conditions “create an enhanced risk whether or not he is detained” and that there was no evidence that protocols in place at the Chesapeake Detention Facility have been inadequate.

But Wyda said judges were agreeing to issue orders to transfer defendants from halfway houses to home confinement to finish the remainder of their sentences.

“From a public health perspective it was the right thing to do,” Wyda said. “But the BOP seems to be stubbornly sticking to the practices they always do, and not making changes, and it’s putting everyone at risk.”

Vandwater declined to comment on whether she believes the BOP should honor the court orders, but confirmed that her organization has not been told to release anyone. She said the conflict has arisen in the past, prior to COVID-19 concerns.

Should the defendants be released, they face separate challenges of where to go. Wyda said his staff have scrambled to help people without a home waiting for them to find homeless programs.

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