The 77-year-old founder of the Sleep Number bed is providing a glimpse of the damage being done in federal prisons by COVID-19 as he becomes the latest of Minnesota’s white-collar criminals to seek an early release from prison for compassionate reasons.
Robert Allen Walker, who bilked investors out of millions of dollars in a bogus coal gasification scheme when he was CEO of Bixby Energy Systems, is serving a 15-year prison term after being convicted in 2014 of 17 charges including fraud, tax evasion and witness tampering.
On Thursday, an attorney representing Walker listed a handful of health conditions that he argued make him especially vulnerable to serious complications if Walker catches the virus.
Andrew Mohring, assistant federal public defender, described “catastrophic conditions” at the Federal Medical Center (FMC) in Lexington, Ky., where Walker is being held.
The federal complex has seen 277 cases, including five inmate deaths, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Overall, the Bureau of Prisons has confirmed 2,024 inmates and 191 staff who have tested positive nationwide. Of those, 80 inmates and one staff member have died.
Mohring noted that the federal prison infection rate was more than six times the national average, 561 times that of what has been reported in China and more than nine times the average for Italy.
“The harsh reality is, COVID-19 has taken root at FMC Lexington,” Mohring wrote in a Thursday memorandum asking U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson to grant Walker a compassionate release. “For now and into the foreseeable future, the virus lurks. Within the body of an asymptomatic resident or staff member. Upon the surface of a cafeteria counter. Any person. Any thing. Anywhere. And all of this in an extremely close-quarters environment, rendering the usual recommendations — e.g., social distancing, contact avoidance, etc. — effectively impossible.”
Mohring argued that Walker is particularly vulnerable because he suffers from atrial fibrillation, chronic kidney disease, psoriatic arthritis and neuropathy, and takes medications that weaken his immune system.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case, but a spokeswoman said it would be filing a response in court.
The office objected earlier this month as U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel released a 21-year-old asthmatic prisoner serving 11 months for methamphetamine trafficking to the care of his parents. It was one of more than 500 cases of compassionate release to home confinement nationwide since the passage of the 2018 First Step Act, a federal prison reform law with bipartisan support in Congress.
A magistrate judge also previously released a 52-year-old man with diabetes before trial, noting the spread of COVID-19.
But not all requests for compassionate release are being granted. Frank Vennes Jr., serving 15 years for his role in the $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Tom Petters, was denied a similar request this week.
U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that the presence of COVID-19 at the Oklahoma City facility at which Vennes is being held did not alone justify his release.
Vennes cited a half dozen health conditions that he argued made him susceptible to the virus, including having had a portion of his lung removed. But a prison doctor noted that his health was stable and that he was not immunocompromised.
To warrant compassionate relief, Magnuson wrote in his order this week, Vennes had to “show more than a mere speculation of the possibility of contracting the virus.”