An inmate at Colorado’s supermax prison complex is demanding to be let out because he believes guards and the federal government are not doing enough to contain the spread of coronavirus within his lockup.
Edward Nellson, who is behind bars in Florence on the same compound as dangerous criminals including El Chapo, the Unabomber and the Boston Bomber says he should be moved out of his jail because he is vulnerable to exposure and is being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.
ADX Florence, sometimes referred to as the Alcatraz as the Rockies, is one of the most secure prisons in the world and houses the most notorious inmates in the US federal prison system, including terrorists, white supremacists and gangsters.
Prisoners are held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, have limited contact with the outside world and no one has escaped since it opened in 1994.
Many are sent to the bleak and remote facility because of their heinous crimes, their history of breaking out of other facilities, or because of their violent past in the prison system.
Nellson was given life in prison without parole for strangling 21-year-old George Washington University student Daniel Krug during a robbery in Washington, DC, in 2002.
He is housed in USP Florence, a high-security prison next door to the secluded supermax jail which has a slightly less strict regime, but still houses very violent offenders.
He bound Krug with bed sheets and zip ties and then beat him with a police baton. DNA on a burnt cigarette butt found at the scene tied him to the murder.
Before his sentencing in 2004, he attacked co-defendant Stephen Burciaga in the court holding cell and was criticized by the judge for showing no remorse during the trial.
In a complaint seen by DailyMail.com, Nellson accuses Warden J Barnhart of leaving him vulnerable to COVID-19, says prison conditions means social distancing is ‘not possible’ and claims he is being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment protected by the Eighth Amendment.
He is demanding screening for all prisoners, isolation for those who test positive and moving any who may be at risk.
‘Testing and isolation are the key to preventing the spread of COVID-19 in prison,’ Nellson writes in his complaint.
‘However, despite this fact and despite the fact that prisons are a known hotbed for infections and viral pandemics, defendants (the warden and the Federal Bureau of Prisons) have yet to implement a systemic testing protocol for prisoners and staff.
‘This is outrageous and a dereliction of duty towards some of the most vulnerable people in our society. By failing to test prisoners and staff, defendants are knowingly risking the lives of every prisoner in the BOP, including USP Florence.’
Coronvairus has already been reported in prisons and jails across the country. A cluster of inmates in Rikers Island and other New York City jails tested positive.
Last weekend, an inmate at New York City’s Metropolitan Detention Center tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first medical prisoner to be diagnosed.
Harvey Weinstein also tested positive when he arrived at a New York state prison to begin his 23-year sentence for rape.
Corrections staff in New York and Washington state have also tested positive.
Some jurisdictions, including New York City, have released low-risk prisoners or defendants awaiting trial to help slow the spread.
The BOP has also initiated a policy to stop the pandemic from spreading inside the prisons such as suspending all social visits and moving most prisoners, but Nellson insists this doesn’t go far enough.
He also complains that prisons have not ordered any testing kits amid a nationwide shortage for the rest of the population, and BOP facilities don’t have hand soap or sanitizer.
‘(The BOP’s) practice and policy ensures that the prisoners within BOP, including USP Florence, are continually exposed to a multitude of other prisoners, in close proximity, without adequate testing to ensure that prisoners with the virus are removed from that population,’ he writes in his complaint.
‘Prisoners like Nellson packed into close quarters, housed with other prisoners, with multiple cells in a single pod, sharing meals multiple times per day.
‘BOP prisoners, including those as USP Florence, including Plaintiff Nellson, and putative class members, take meals in a communal chow hall, utilize communal showers, have cells with open toilets in them, and have communal recreation areas.
‘Without the ability to isolate and engage in social distancing, isolation of prisoners who have COVID-19 from this population prior to passing the infection is critical to controlling the spread of this illness.
‘Isolating all prisoners with the symptoms of COVID-19, fever, cough, or shortness of breath, and testing for the virus is the only effective means to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in this captive population.’
Nellson also identified a case in Pueblo County, Colorado, which is near ADX Florence, as a means to suggest there is a heightened risk to the prison population.
He also cited the fact that Colorado’s Governor Jay Polis decided to close all the state’s bars and restaurants as a preventative measure.
‘USP Florence prisoners eat together and continue to serve each other food, with no testing or monitoring for symptoms.
‘Further, USP Florence prisoners cannot be “five at a time” in their various living arrangements.
‘Unable to take the precautionary measures, USP Florence prisoners are sitting ducks in this pandemic, at the mercy of Defendants’ inaction.’
He continues: ‘USP Florence prisoners assigned to kitchen and other sanitary-related duties are continuing to perform those duties. They are doing this with no screening and no testing to ensure they are not carriers.’
Nellson also wants the 175,483 inmates in the federal system to be part of his class-action suit.
‘There simply is no doubt that based on the facts incorporated… that these defendants know of and appreciate the serious risk of harm to the prison population, and simply have not taken reasonable steps to abate that harm.
Jack Donson, a retired BOP employee who now works for prison reform with FedCURE, told DailyMail.com: ‘Compassionate Release is a potential option but it will not be individual relief in my humble opinion.
‘If anything happens along those lines, it would be more practical for the agency to use that statutory authority en masse but I have no faith in government or the BOP leadership.’
He also suggests that halfway houses, or RRC Facilities, could be used more to help house some inmates to contain the spread.
The Bureau of Prisons told DailyMail.com they do not comment on ongoing litigation regarding inmates.
They have also put in place guidelines meaning all prisoners are screened of tested if they are moved or suffering symptoms.
The majority of legal visits are being conducted by phone or through video conferencing. Attorneys have to be screened before any in-person meeting.
USP Florence has a capacity for 816 inmates and holds murderers, cop killers and cartel leaders.
Ronell Wilson is serving a life sentence for murdering NYPD Detectives James Nemorin and Rodney Andrew in Staten Island in 2003.
Mexican drug lord and former leader of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, is also behind bars there and is due to be released in 2025.
Many pass through USP Florence on their way to the supermax facility or are moved to the adjacent facility if they break the rules or are deemed too volatile.