Fyre Fest's Billy McFarland Asks Court for Early Release from Elkton Federal Prison in Ohio as Coronavirus Ravages Facility

McFarland is serving a six-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2018 to wire fraud charges stemming from the ill-fated Fyre Festival

Apr 16, 2020 at 12:45 pm
Ja Rule and Billy McFarland - Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix
Ja Rule and Billy McFarland

Billy McFarland, who is serving a six-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2018 to wire fraud charges stemming from the Fyre Festival, has requested an early release from Elkton federal prison to home confinement as the coronavirus ravages the low-security facility that holds about 2,000 inmates.

“Mr. McFarland has informed us that he has pre-existing conditions that make contracting Covid-19 easier, and which increase his potential to suffer severe health issues and death if he does so, including being diagnosed with asthma as a teenager. Further, he has informed us that he was diagnosed on the ‘extreme’ scale of the allergy spectrum, for issues related to breathing and his cardiovascular system, and that he has experienced heart issues since his early 20s," his lawyers wrote in a filing first reported by The Wrap. “Mr. McFarland is not a risk to the community nor a threat to public safety. The crime to which he pled guilty for was the non-violent financial crime of wire fraud. However, he is a low risk of recidivism for such financial crimes.”

At least six inmates have died of COVID-19 at Elkton to date. Another 31 are hospitalized, 37 are in isolation and 109 have been quarantined. Thirty-three staff members have also tested positive. "Fucking everybody fucking dying," an inmate said in a video recorded on a smuggled cell phone weeks ago while describing deplorable sanitary conditions inside the prison, including a lack of soap and sleeping arrangements that don't allow for social distancing.

Relatives of inmates have told CityBeat's sister paper the Cleveland Scene the situation has only gotten worse since then, including when it comes to basic needs.

"The food is congealed, not hot when it's supposed to be, baloney sandwiches every night for dinner," one family member told Scene this week. "The portions of food given – if they can even stomach it – is a tablespoon of each item. That’s not enough food for a grown man."

The ACLU of Ohio filed a habeas petition on behalf of prisoners earlier this week seeking the immediate furlough or release of medically vulnerable inmates.

McFarland's lawyers note that he was considered a candidate for home release in 2021, and that in light of the current crisis, should be afforded that opportunity earlier. They also note that he's received only one infraction during his federal imprisonment after being found with a USB device that, he said, contained a draft of a self-improvement book he'd been working on in an effort to make restitution to those he harmed.

Also attached to the filing is a letter McFarland had posted in early April announcing the creation of Project 315, an organization that solicited donations to help inmates pay for phone calls to connect with families on the outside during the coronavirus pandemic. After the Bureau of Prisons announced all calls would be free, McFarland posted to Project 315's website that all third-party donations left over would be returned.

In an assessment by federal officials, McFarland was deemed a high recidivism risk, but his lawyers argue that designation was a mistake and with gigs lined up, McFarland won't be tempted to commit financial crimes again.

After learning of the assessment, "Mr. McFarland immediately went and saw the staff regarding this and received reassurance from three different staff members along the lines of, ‘this was a mistake. You are not a high risk of recidivism. You will be reduced to a minimum. We must have typed it in the wrong. We'll fix it for you in April when you have your next team meeting. It won't matter before then,'" the lawyers wrote.

"Further," his lawyers argue, "he has independent earning potential through several avenues, including a pending deal with a major streaming service where Mr. McFarland will be interviewed for a substantial fee, a novel, a memoir, and a podcast hosting job, which can all be completed from within home detention. Naturally he will need to obtain permission from the Government and this court and be in compliance with all Restitution requirements and pay all existing fines. Being able to work on these projects while in home confinement will allow Mr. McFarland to not only supply for his own basic needs but also begin paying restitution through legitimate means and provide value to society, while closely being monitored." 

This story first appeared in CityBeat's sister paper The Cleveland Scene.