Southern District denies prisoner’s compassionate release request prompted by COVID-19 concerns

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied Thursday a prisoner’s request for compassionate release based on a fear of contracting COVID-19, finding no extraordinary and compelling reasons to reduce his sentence.

Prisoner Robert Williams, 33, filed a motion seeking compassionate release or a reduction of his sentence under § 603 of the First Step Act of 2018 based on his alleged risk of severe illness if he contracted COVID-19.

Williams was convicted of six counts of interference with commerce by robbery and one count of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence. Williams, who is currently incarcerated at FCI Edgefield in Edgefield, South Carolina, has an anticipated release date with good-conduct time included for June 9, 2028.

In his compassionate release request, Williams contended that because he is overweight, a carrier of the sickle cell trait and African-American, that he is more susceptible to severe complications from COVID-19.

Those facts, combined with the BOP’s inability to control COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities, establish extraordinary and compelling reasons to reduce his sentence, he asserted.

Williams, who originally denied getting the COVID-19 vaccine when it was offered to him, later changed his mind and alleged that although he requested to receive the vaccine twice in July 2021, he had not yet received it as of early September 2021.

But the Southern District Court denied his request in a Thursday order, finding Williams had not presented an extraordinary and compelling reason warranting relief.

“While the Court sympathizes with Mr. Williams’s fear of becoming infected with the virus, the general threat of contracting COVID-19 is not an extraordinary and compelling reason warranting a sentence reduction,” Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker wrote.

Barker acknowledged that Williams’ weight was at least one risk factor that could make him more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.

However, the district court concluded that the widespread availability of three different COVID-19 vaccines across the United States has dramatically changed situations of rampant virus spread among prison settings.

“Although no vaccine is perfect, studies have provided a growing body of evidence that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines reduce the risk associated with COVID-19 among people who are fully vaccinated, including the risk of severe illness and death,” the district court wrote. “The CDC also reports that the COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the United States are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant.”

Assuming that Williams has since been fully vaccinated, the district court concluded that his chances of being infected with COVID-19 and suffering severe symptoms if infected has been dramatically reduced.

It also held that the high rate of vaccination at FCI Edgefield – almost 75% – should provide Williams “with additional protection against infection.”

Barker cited United States v. Broadfield, 5 F.4th 801 (7th Cir. 2021) in support of the decision– a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that held COVID-19 could not be an extraordinary and compelling reason for release for an inmate who had declined the vaccine without an adequate medical justification.

“Given these facts, and the rationale of Broadfield, the Court declines to exercise its discretion to find that the risk Mr. Williams faces from the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason warranting release under § 3582(c)(1)(A),” it concluded.

The case is United State of America v. Robert Williams, 1:17-cr-00003.

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