As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread through prisons, jails, and other detention facilities in the United States, it has brought new attention to a decades-old issue of whether challenges to conditions of confinement can be brought under habeas statutes. (1) The COVID-19 virus spread rapidly through detention facilities in the United States given the inability to social distance within the facilities, the flow of guards between the community and the detention centers, a lack of sanitary conditions, and other factors. (2) By June 25, 2021, there were at least 398,627 COVID-19 cases and 2,715 COVID-19-related deaths among those incarcerated in state and federal prisons. (3) In the federal prison system, the case rate was 2,866 per 10,000 incarcerated individuals, nearly triple the U.S. population case rate of roughly 1,020 per 10,000 in that same period. (4) Meanwhile, the courts provided very few options for those facing a possible death sentence from COVID-19 to seek relief. (5)
One possible option for incarcerated individuals was filing a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Habeas is a centuries-old avenue for challenging unlawful confinement, used to seek outright release or a conditional release order mandating that the government either remedy unlawful aspects of custody or release the individual. (6) However, for many, the long-standing federal court disagreement over whether conditions-of-confinement claims can be brought under habeas proved "a salient obstacle to relief." (7) The Supreme Court has explicitly "left open the question whether [incarcerated individuals] might be able to challenge their confinement conditions via a petition for a writ of habeas corpus," (8) although some earlier Supreme Court cases allowed them to do just that. (9) Circuit courts have meanwhile divided sharply on the issue. (10)
This question is a vital one because habeas is one of few avenues of relief for prisoners--especially federal ones--seeking to challenge unlawful conditions of confinement. State prisoners seeking federal relief from unlawful conditions of confinement can do so through [section] 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, (11) which allows individuals to sue state officials who violate their federal rights, (12) or via the less common approach of [section][section] 2254 or 2241 of the habeas statutes, which allow federal courts to hear petitions for writs of habeas corpus by individuals in state custody under certain circumstances. (13) States also have their own methods through which state prisoners may seek relief from unlawful prison conditions, including state habeas statutes. (14)
Individuals incarcerated in federal prisons, meanwhile, cannot bring suits against federal prison officials under the Civil Rights Act, because [section] 1983 applies only to state and local, not federal, officials. (15) Instead, federal prisoners have four possible options: the Federal Tort Claims Act16 (FTCA), suits under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, (17) mandamus, (18) and [section] 2241 of the habeas statutes. (19) The FTCA, Bivens, and mandamus all have severe limitations. The FTCA provides only for monetary damages and does not authorize a court to issue injunctive relief, so it may not successfully...