Visits halted in fed prisons, immigration centers over virus
WASHINGTON (AP) — Inmates at all 122 federal correctional facilities across the country will no longer be allowed visits from family, friends or attorneys for the next 30 days, in response to the threat of the coronavirus, officials told The Associated Press on Friday.
The restrictions, now in effect, were portrayed as a precaution, since no federal inmates or Bureau of Prisons staff members have tested positives for COVID-19. It was unclear if any inmates have been tested. The officials said some exceptions could be made for legal visits.
The plan to temporarily suspend visitation, curtail staff travel and pause inmate transfers is part of the bureau’s action plan for concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus for the 175,000 inmates in Bureau of Prisons custody.
Correctional officers and other Bureau of Prisons staff members who work in facilities in areas with “sustained community transmission” or at medical referral centers — which provide advanced care for inmates with chronic or acute medical conditions — would be subject to enhanced health screenings. Those include having their temperature taken before they report for duty each day.
The restrictions, described in an action plan obtained by the AP, will remain in effect for 30 days and then will be re-evaluated. Unlike a security lockdown, inmates will not be locked in cells.
The restrictions come as courts have suspended or delayed trials and as classes, sports events, concerts and conferences are canceled across the nation in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.
Separately on Friday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement also said it would temporarily suspend social visits at all of its detention facilities across the U.S. Officials said there were no detainees who had confirmed cases of COVID-19 and that canceling visitation was precautionary to “further safeguard those in our care.”
ICE is holding about 37,888 immigrants in more than 130 facilities including local jails and prisons.
But unlike prisons, where inmates are sent by judges, ICE has discretion on when to release immigrants as their deportation cases wind through court, and advocates called for vulnerable populations to be released, including pregnant women, those over 60, and people with compromised immune systems.
“Although immigration detainees are in civil, not criminal, custody, they are held in close contact inside prison-like facilities. Doctors have reported that a COVID-19 outbreak in these conditions is inevitable,” said Greer Millard, a spokesman with the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project in Arizona.
Under the new Bureau of Prisons plan, there would be no social visits at any bureau facilities, but inmates would be eligible for an additional 200 minutes of phone time per month. Legal visits are also being suspended, though officials said accommodations could be made on a case-by-case basis.
“Access to legal counsel remains a paramount requirement in the BOP but like social visiting, the BOP is mitigating the risk of exposure created by external visitors,” the agency said in a statement.
The new plan was being put into place because “the population density of prisons creates a risk of infection and transmission for inmates and staff,” it said. As part of the plan, all new inmates are screened for the risk factors of COVID-19. Those who are asymptomatic but have risk factors would be quarantined and those who showed symptoms and also had risk factors would be isolated and tested for COVID-19.
Visits by volunteers, as well as official staff travel, and training will also be suspended, with limited exceptions. Inmates will still be able to speak privately with religious advisers by phone.
Health officials have been warning for more than a decade about the dangers of outbreaks in jails and prisons, which are ideal environments for virus outbreaks: Inmates share small cells with total strangers, use toilets just a few feet from their beds, and are herded into day rooms where they spend hours at a time together.
The union that represents correctional officers lauded the Bureau of Prisons’ plans, saying they were “swift, decisive, and unprecedented actions taken to combat the COVID-19 virus and its ominous threat that it poses to our nation’s federal prisons.”
“These extensive measures will help ensure the safety and security of our facilities while protecting our federal law enforcement officers that walk the toughest neighborhoods in America,” said Shane Fausey, the president of the National Council of Prison Locals.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and even death.
The vast majority of people recover from the virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe cases may take three to six weeks to recover.
Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak in New York and Astrid Galvan in Phoenix contributed to this report.
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