Federal prison officials are growing increasingly alarmed about a shortage of resources to test and treat prisoners and workers exposed to COVID-19.
Across the Bureau of Prisons' vast network of 122 facilities, at least 29 inmates and 30 staff members have been infected. Officials are scrambling to secure enough staffing and personal protective equipment, or PPE, to meet the need, battling a bureaucracy that has been slow to adapt to the crisis.
Shane Fausey, the National Council of Prisons Union President, raised the alarm about the shortage of PPE on a conference call with a lawmaker on Tuesday.
“We want the Bureau of Prisons to protect our employees, the same average men and women,” Shane Fausey, the National Council of Prisons Union President said. “They come in and out of your federal prisons every day. Now they're tasked with not only dealing with violent offenders, but now battling an invisible monster.”
Federal inmates make up a total of 175,000 of the total 2.1 million inmates across the country, according to BOP and the Sentencing Project. The BOP announced that, starting on Wednesday, "inmates in every institution will be secured in their assigned cells/quarters to decrease the spread of the virus,” for the next 14 days.
Two officials at FCC Butner in North Carolina told ABC News that the BOP has not relaxed restrictions on which contractors who can supply PPE to the hospital on the prison grounds. Currently, they said, only one designated contractor is permitted to supply PPE to the facility.
The Bureau of Prisons told ABC News in a statement that they are competing with other organizations for protective equipment, saying that if their “mandatory” source of supplies cannot provide them, facilities are procuring supplies from local vendors if available. They said they are working through a “variety of sources” to maintain all the supplies that are needed.
“The BOP is using multiple acquisition strategies to obtain more PPE in competition with other organizations," the agency said in a statement. "The BOP has established a mandatory source contract for all BOP institutions to order medical supplies and equipment as required. But in light of the limited supplies in the marketplace, BOP is competing with public and private entities."
FCI Oakdale in Louisiana has been perhaps the hardest hit federal prison facility. Two inmates have died and more than a dozen of other staff and inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.
According to local union president Ronald Morris, many more inmates are showing symptoms of infection, but the facility does not have the means to test them, leaving prison staff fearing for themselves as well.
“Anxiety amongst the staff is, at a very high level,” Morris told ABC News. “Everybody's scared. They are worried that they're going to get it that they are going to bring it home to their families, and that they’ll introduce it into their communities.”
The Bureau of Prisons told ABC News that they are taking protective measures "for any inmate who presents COVID-19 symptoms. The facility is presently locked down commensurate with community sustained transmission protocols, symptomatic inmates are isolated, and additional resources are being provided to manage all symptomatic inmates with appropriate care. As is typical practice in facilities with sustained transmission of COVID-19, local health authorities have recommended against testing additional cases who present with COVID-19 symptoms in the Oakdale facility, but to presume they are COVID-19 positive. This action is in order to conserve valuable testing resources."
Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat, wrote a letter to the Attorney General and Director of the Bureau of Prisons asking questions about the treatment of inmates and staff. In the letter, she highlighted the amount of money the Bureau got from the recent bill.
“Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which provides $100 million for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to prepare for and respond to COVID-19 with uses including the purchase of personal protective equipment, overtime, and cleaning facilities,” Demings wrote. “I strongly urge you to acquire and distribute the appropriate sanitation and personal protective equipment without delay to our federal correctional facilities.”
Other lawmakers have proposed a more dramatic solution. In light of the dangers to both prisoners and workers, some members of Congress have called on Attorney General Bill Barr to release inmates.
“We call on you, in the most urgent of terms, to do the right thing and exercise this authority and immediately move to release medically-compromised, elderly, and pregnant prisoners in the custody of the BOP,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, and Rep. Karen Bass write to the Attorney General.
Attorney General Barr said at a press conference last week that he is contemplating releasing vulnerable inmates to finish their term of imprisonment on home confinement.
"You want to make sure that our institutions don't become petri dishes and it spreads rapidly through a particular institution," Attorney General Barr said at a press conference last week. "But we have the protocols that are designed to stop it and we are using all the tools we have to protect the inmates."
In the meantime, the BOP is already facing a pair of COVID-19 related lawsuits, one from inmates, another from staff.
Federal Defenders, a nonprofit group of lawyers, filed suit on behalf of inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, alleging poor treatment by the BOP and a lack of information sharing by the agency to those incarcerated.
“Federal Defenders deeply concerned that our clients will be exposed, sickened, or potentially face serious illness or death because of MDC’s inadequate and slow response to this public health crisis, and its lack of medical facilities,” the complaint reads.
In another lawsuit, the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents more than 700,000 federal employees, including BOP officers, filed suit against the BOP and other government organizations, demanding “hazard pay” for working under the conditions caused by COVID-19.
“By failing to pay plaintiffs a 25% pay differential on these occasions, and continuing to fail and refuse to pay plaintiffs for this hazardous duty, the defendant has violated, and is continuing to violate, the provisions of Title 5 relating to hazardous duty pay,” the lawsuit reads.
According to the code, Title 5 specifically relates to “hazardous working conditions through the performance of their assigned duties and that the hazardous duty had not been taken into account in the classification of their positions,” according to the code.
The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on any of the pending litigation.
Local union president Morris told ABC News that it has been “heartbreaking” to see staff go through this crisis.
“We've got staff living in campers behind their home so they don't go into their houses, and bring this to their wives and kids, Morris said. “It's just it's tough.”
What to know about coronavirus:
- How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
- What to do if you have symptoms: coronavirus symptoms
- Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: coronavirus map
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