In Atlanta, federal lawyers fight to free inmates amid coronavirus

Public defenders seek compassionate release of the medically vulnerable

With the pandemic turning the nation’s prisons into viral stalking grounds, Joseph Byse knew he had a potentially lethal problem as someone serving time in a federal prison.

With a history of acute upper respiratory infections and other serious medical conditions, Byse was at great risk if he contracted the disease.

“I was so worried,” Byse said. “People are dying for real in the prisons.”

In late May, a lawyer at Atlanta’s Federal Defenders Office, which represents indigent defendants, jumped in and filed a motion asking a federal judge to grant Byse what’s called a compassionate release. Since the pandemic struck, the office’s 30 lawyers have banded together and filed dozens of motions on behalf of medically vulnerable clients.

On Aug. 28, Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Story signed an order granting Byse his compassionate release. Byse walked out of the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta three days later and is now living with family members.

“I’ve been in tears for days,” the 38-year-old Byse said last week. “Everything they did for me, it was a blessing.”

Byse was the 17th person in prison granted compassionate release while being represented by the Federal Defenders Office here. So far, the office’s lawyers have filed about 70 motions and expect to file another 30, said Matthew Dodge, an appellate and post-conviction litigator.

“Every single lawyer in the office has taken up the compassionate release cause,” Dodge said. “It’s all hands on deck. I’m proud of our office.”

In April, Chief Judge Thomas Thrash signed an administrative order that appointed the Federal Defenders Office to review every compassionate release request filed by federal inmates who were not represented by counsel. The office has so far received more than 300 such cases, Dodge said. (The procedure for seeking compassionate release of inmates in city and state lockups differs significantly from the federal system process.)

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has successfully opposed a number of the requests in federal court, but it has also consented to about a dozen of them.

“We are basing our recommendations whether to consent to compassionate release on whether someone is in a high-risk category based on the CDC categories,” said BJay Pak, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. If they are, the office then looks “at their criminal history, crime of conviction and prison disciplinary history, among other things, as our guideposts for making our decision.”

Pak added, “We are balancing the health and safety of the defendant and also the impact of his or her release on public safety.”

For the medically fragile, living where the coronavirus stalks people who cannot move out of its way, time is of the essence, Dodge said.

“It keeps me up at night,” Dodge said. “We’ve had clients die of COVID during our compassionate release project. It makes me panicked every day, thinking that I’m not doing enough.”

It used to be that only the Bureau of Prisons had the authority to grant compassionate releases. But the First Step Act, enacted in December 2018, allows inmates to turn to the courts if they can show they have tried but failed to convince the bureau to grant their release.

In their pleadings, those serving time must persuade federal judges that their medical conditions, coupled with the pandemic, constitute an “extraordinary and compelling” reason to be released.

Along with the medical factors, the judge must also consider the nature of the crime the person committed, the length of time he or she has served in custody, and whether the person has a stable place to stay upon release.

In 2008, when police executed a search warrant of Byse’s home after an informant said Byse was selling drugs there, they found a shotgun and ammunition. Because he had multiple prior state court convictions for possessing and selling small amounts of drugs, Byse was charged as an armed career criminal and sentenced to 15 years and eight months in prison.

In his order granting Byse compassionate release, Story found that Byse was particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and had served 87% of his sentence. The judge also found no evidence to indicate Byse presents a danger to the community.

Byse said he will make the best of this opportunity and wants to find a job as soon as possible. He’s looking for opportunities in the heating and air conditioning repair business, having worked on the penitentiary’s systems the past seven years.

“There was a time I felt like giving up,” Byse said. But thankfully, he added, defender office secretary Debra Spratt kept sending him emails that said, “Hold your head up.”

Byse’s federal defender, Rick Holcomb, said once the coronavirus comes through the gates of a prison, it’s a silent infector.

“This is a different type of prison sentence than we’re accustomed to or that we deem acceptable,” he said. “There’s a disease that can kill you in the hallway and you can’t go anywhere.”

The Bureau of Prisons houses roughly 127,000 federal inmates nationwide. Its website says there are 1,761 who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have not yet recovered. Another 10,821 who contracted the virus have recovered. Of the 118 who died, four had been released into home confinement.

Mario Ingram, 41, felt at great risk while serving his time at a federal prison in Pennsylvania because he suffers from chronic asthma. In 2016, he was sentenced to serve seven years and one month in custody for possessing a stolen firearm.

Ingram’s release, approved by Judge Steve Jones, was granted a month after federal defender Natasha Silas filed the request. He was released on July 13 and will be under the supervision of a U.S. probation officer for three years.

“I didn’t want to die in prison,” said Ingram, who now works for a barbecue sauce company. “God really prevailed for me. It was a rough, rough time in there after the coronavirus really hit.”

Silas is glad it worked out for Ingram. “When you can help someone get out of a scary, dangerous situation, it feels good,” she said.

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