Coronavirus was Paul Manafort's ticket home. Many other old, ill, nonviolent inmates are still in prison

Like Paul Manafort, Mike Yepremian has a long list of health problems that place him at high risk of dying of COVID-19. He has diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and respiratory failure and sepsis, some of the same ailments that have afflicted Donald Trump’s former presidential campaign chairman.

Like Manafort, Yepremian was hospitalized a few months ago.In February, his pneumonia had gotten so bad that he was put into a medically induced coma for nine days while intubated, his family said. In April, he was back in the hospital.

Like Manafort, Yepremian is serving time for a white-collar crime. Manafort defrauded the government out of millions of dollars he amassed through illicit lobbying. Yepremian defrauded Medicare by running fake clinics in Texas. Manafort was sentenced to 7½ years. Yepremian is serving 10 years. 

Both men, their attorneys said, are nonviolent, first-time prisoners who don’t have the capacity to commit another crime. Both men are probably in the last years of their lives. Manafort is 71; Yepremian is 63.

Isolated, scared:The plight of juveniles locked up during the coronavirus pandemic

Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for Donald Trump, arrives at Manhattan Supreme Court on June 27, 2019, for his arraignment on mortgage fraud charges.

Manafort, once a well-known Republican operative, was released early, following Attorney General William Barr’s order to expedite moving vulnerable prisoners to home confinement because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yepremian, an unknown, remains incarcerated.  

Attorneys and advocates said there are many more like Yepremian – old, nonviolent prisoners who aren’t a threat to public safety, yet remain behind bars even as the virus infects hundreds of inmates and staff. The way the federal Bureau of Prisons implemented Barr’s directive has been inconsistent, confusing and slow, attorneys and advocates said. The agency has broad discretion in determining who can spend the rest of their sentence at home, but how this gets decided is cloaked in secrecy.

“This is a classic problem with the BOP, just a lack of transparency. When everything is shielded from oversight, people are going to be skeptical with it,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Judge calls BOP's quarantine policies 'illogical'  

The release of a former Trump ally has raised eyebrows among critics, although it's unclear whether privilege or influence played a role. 

Judges across the country have called out prison officials for how they dealt with the pandemic. A federal judge in Ohio said officials have taken “only minimal effort” to keep about 800 elderly and at-risk inmates out of harm’s way. A federal judge in New York called some of the Bureau of Prisons’ quarantine policies “illogical” and “Kafkaesque.”

The Bureau of Prisons declined to say whether Yepremian qualifies for home confinement, saying it does not speak about a specific inmate’s suitability. The agency said that after Barr’s directive, it “immediately” began reviewing all prisoners who have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 to determine who’s suitable for home confinement. 

Michael Cohen released:Ex-Trump lawyer to be released amid coronavirus fears

“We are urgently reviewing all inmates to determine which ones meet the criteria to be suitable for home confinement as established by the Attorney General,” the agency said in a statement. 

Yepremian is serving time at the Terminal Island prison in Southern California, a low-security facility that houses some of the federal system’s sickest inmates. It had among the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections.

“At a time when prisons are being emptied out across the nation, it would defy logic and be dangerous to force Mr. Yepremian … to remain in one of the most severely infected facilities in the country,” said Alan Jackson, the family’s attorney. 

Keeping him behind bars “is playing Russian roulette with his life,” Jackson said. “Except in this case, five out of six chambers are loaded.”

'It gets more frightening':As virus surges, families of elderly inmates wait in fear

‘Sentenced to a term of imprisonment, not to a death sentence’

Across the federal prison system, more than 18,000 prisoners are serving sentences of less than three years.

Yepremian and Manafort are serving longer, but they’re among the 9,800 who are 61 and older. They’re among the less than 10,000 who are serving time for nonviolent, white-collar crimes, such as fraud and bribery. These totals include those who have been allowed to serve the rest of their sentence at home. 

The Bureau of Prisons has moved 3,889 inmates to home confinement. 

Attorneys and advocates said the bureau has not done enough to fulfill Barr’s orders, which directed officials to consider an inmate’s age and vulnerability, their conduct in prison and the crime for which they were convicted, and to prioritize those in low-security facilities.

Barr's directive:Expand home confinement for elderly inmates to avoid larger coronavirus outbreak

Prisons are struggling with coronavirus infections.

In court filings, officials said they will consider prisoners who have served 50% of their time or have 18 months or less in their sentences.

Yepremian, who’s set to be released in 2026, does not meet this requirement. Neither does Manafort. 

“In these decisions, you can’t always tell which factors are being weighed more heavily than others,” Ring said. “If you have an infraction last year, that should disqualify you, but what if you’re really sick? If you stole an egg from the dining hall six months ago, does that really counterbalance the fact that you have diabetes?”

Officials rely on a scoring system that rates prisoners’ likelihood of committing another crime. Ring said neither prisoners nor their families have been able to find out what their score was. 

“Families don’t have access to prisoners’ assessment. The families were reaching out, but they don’t get answers. (Prisoners) are being told they’re not eligible, and they can’t figure out why,” Ring said. “A lot of people are telling us they couldn’t get their scores, so they can’t even argue with it.”

BOP response:Prisons chief defends coronavirus response as infections mount

At Terminal Island, many of the prisoners suffer from chronic, medical and mental health conditions. The facility has about 1,000 inmates. More than half tested positive for coronavirus, although officials said nearly everyone – about 600 – recovered. Nine prisoners died. 

Dan Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office, which filed a lawsuit against the Terminal Island prison, said very few people have been released, even though they seem to qualify under Barr’s directive. 

“They were sentenced to a term of imprisonment, not to a death sentence,” Specter said. “The people under their care and custody are the most vulnerable and the lowest risk for recidivism. It’s incomprehensible to me why (the warden) hasn’t acted more promptly.”

US coronavirus map:Tracking the outbreak

Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing examining issues facing prisons and jails during the coronavirus pandemic June 2.

Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal defended the agency’s response to the pandemic, saying inmate testing revealing infection rates as high as 70% is “in no way representative” of conditions across the system. He said less than half the bureau’s facilities have been hit with coronavirus, and many of those who tested positive are asymptomatic. 

Arthur Rizer, a former Justice Department lawyer and a criminal justice expert at R Street Institute, said many of the criticisms against the Bureau of Prisons are unfair. 

“I don’t think there’s anybody twirling their fingers saying, ‘How can we keep more people incarcerated.’ … There’s just not really a good one-snap solution,” Rizer said. 

Coronavirus in prison:Officials challenged by hundreds of infected inmates 

Rizer acknowledged that prison officials have not moved fast enough in releasing nonviolent offenders, including those who committed crimes such as fraud, forgery or petty drug offenses.

“I know it’s not a perfect system. It’s not something that I would advocate for as a way of doing business, when time is of the essence and the number one way to stop infections is to use social distancing … they should be looking at all available tools to get people out that don’t need to be there,” Rizer said. 

Waiting in panic

The last time Yepremian’s family saw him was in February, before the Bureau of Prisons banned visitations in response to the pandemic.

As the virus spread at Terminal Island, his daughters said they did not hear from him for weeks. 

They waited in panic after finding out their father was hospitalized and in a coma. They wondered if he was receiving the care he needed, if he could walk, if he was getting enough food and water, if he was at least comfortable. 

A Federal Bureau of Prisons truck drives past the Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

Yepremian has tested negative for coronavirus.If he tests positive, he’d have little chance of surviving, his daughters said. 

When they finally heard from Yepremian, they said, he was allowed only five-minute phone calls. They said he was distraught.

Maria Morris, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s national prison project, said much of the concern among prisoners is the inability to safely distance themselves. 

Coronavirus and prisons:Federal prison officials order systemwide lockdown in bid to limit spread

“People are getting sick all around them. You hear people coughing constantly,” said Morris, who’s suing a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. “They’re right on top of each other in the bathrooms, right on top of each other when they’re trying to use telephones, computers. They’re sleeping right next to each other.”

The Bureau of Prisons said it took several steps, including limiting prisoner transfers, restricting inmates’ abilities to move around and congregate, screening, quarantining and isolating prisoners who show symptoms and beefing up its stock of cleaning and medical supplies. Screening includes regular temperature checks, officials said. 

“All of these actions were carried out with the goal of reducing the risk of introducing and spreading the virus inside our facilities,” the agency said.

In late April, prisoners were given cloth masks. At Terminal Island, where officials said all prisoners have been tested for COVID-19, officials disseminated information on social distancing and hygiene.

Families remain on edge. 

Yepremian's family found out his cellmate had tested positive, leaving them to worry that unless he’s home, he’s not safe.