A federal judge in Minnesota released an asthmatic prisoner to the care of his parents against the wishes of the U.S. Attorney's Office and a federal prison warden in a so-called compassionate release case spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prisoner, Mario Ariel Alvarado, 21, of Roseville, was about one-third of the way through his 11-month sentence on a methamphetamine dealing charge when he was released May 28 from the federal minimum security prison in Duluth.

"He was extremely happy and moved," said attorney Steve Meshbesher, who represented Alvarado. "I admire the judge for using her authority for justice."

It's one of 522 cases of compassionate release nationwide since passage of the 2018 First Step Act, a federal prison reform law that had bipartisan support in Congress.

Alvarado entered prison in mid-February and was housed in Duluth as one of 401 inmates. He uses an inhaler daily, and when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Minnesota he applied for compassionate release.

The Duluth warden on April 17 denied his request, saying he understood Alvarado's COVID-19 fears but that his case didn't warrant early release. Alvarado appealed, saying that though no COVID-19 cases had been reported at the prison, a lack of testing made it hard to know if anyone was ill.

Meshbesher filed an emergency motion May 18 asking that Alvarado's sentence be reduced under the First Step Act's compassionate release guidelines or, if not possible, that he be transferred to home detention. The U.S. Attorney's Office responded by saying Alvarado had served only three months of his sentence and that releasing him would not be suitable considering the seriousness of his offense.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel disagreed, granting Alvarado compassionate release on May 27. She cited his good conduct in prison and a lack of any criminal history before his drug arrest. His plans to go back to college and return to his cooking job while living with his family also were significant, Brasel wrote.

Some 75 prisoners and one staff member in the federal prison system have died of the coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to the agency's website. That's out of 134,982 inmates and approximately 36,000 staffers.

The U.S. federal prison system since March 26 has sent some 3,793 inmates home in an effort to protect those deemed vulnerable to COVID-19. The inmates are considered transferred to home detention and must continue to serve out their sentence. Only certain inmates qualify, such as those who are being held at minimum security prisons and who have a good record of conduct. Inmates with serious offenses like sex crimes would not be eligible under the guidelines issued by U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

Alvarado pleaded guilty in March 2019 to one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. An Edison High School graduate, he enrolled at Hamline University but dropped out in his first year. Meshbesher said he also worked as a cook at a Twin Cities hotel and at some point got involved in the drug trade.

At the time of his sentencing, Alvarado had the support of teachers and professors from Edison High and Hamline who wrote shining character references in his defense.

"He was very, very naive," said Meshbesher. "It was just an easy thing for him to do. I don't think he understood the severity of it."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329