Federal prisons struggle to combat growing COVID-19 fears
WASHINGTON (AP) — When a federal correction officer geared up for duty recently at a Florida prison complex, he added an N95 mask amid coronavirus fears. He has a sister who had an organ transplant and an elderly mother at home.
But a supervisor ordered him to take it off and threatened disciplinary action if he refused. At other federal prisons, though, he would have been told to wear one. Rules on protective gear vary widely from prison to prison.
And inmates say there is little guidance on what to do if they experience flu-like symptoms and very little social distancing. Some who have symptoms are not tested.
Together, these accounts detail a scattershot policy on COVID-19 safety at the federal Bureau of Prisons amid the growing pandemic. Advocates and even prison guards are calling for reforms to head off a potential outbreak in a prison system plagued for years by violence, misconduct and staffing shortages.
This report is based on interviews with nearly two dozen correction officers, inmates, attorneys and advocates, many of whom spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Health officials have been warning for more than a decade about the dangers of epidemics in jails and prisons, which are ideal environments for virus outbreaks: Inmates share small cells with strangers, use toilets just a few feet (meters) from their beds and are herded into day rooms where they spend hours at a time together.
While statistically the number of confirmed coronavirus cases within the Bureau of Prisons system is far lower than the rate outside prisons in the U.S., there is widespread fear among inmates and staff members that the virus could spread rapidly. So far, 14 inmates and 13 staff members within the federal prison system have been confirmed to have COVID-19.
Attorney General William Barr said Thursday that the Justice Department takes seriously “our responsibility to protect those who are put in our custody.”
“We want to make sure that our institutions don’t become petri dishes,” he said. “But we have the protocols that are designed to stop that, and we are using all the tools we have to protect the inmates.”
In a statement to the AP, Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal said the agency has “thus far been fortunate in that our rate of COVID-19 infection is remarkably low.”
“We believe that the low number of cases to this point, in a system this large, is a testament to our effective planning and execution to date,” he said.
And the Bureau of Prisons said its employees were expected to follow its guidance on the coronavirus and would investigate if officials are “made aware of specific circumstances that would lead us to believe that policy or guidance may not have been followed.”
There are approximately 146,000 inmates at the 122 federal correctional facilities across the U.S., including about 10,000 over the age of 60. New inmates coming into the federal prison system are screened for COVID-19 risk factors, have their temperature taken and are being quarantined for 14 days.
But inmates nationwide contacted by the AP raised a similar issue: There are no signs or documents listing the symptoms of COVID-19, and there’s been little communication about what they should do if they experience flu-like symptoms.
Some exhibiting flu-like symptoms were not tested or quarantined at several facilities, including at the FCI Yazoo City in Mississippi and at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City, according to inmates and advocates. There have been confirmed COVID-19 cases at both.
Joseph Plany, locked up at a federal prison camp in Beaumont, Texas, said one inmate sought treatment for respiratory symptoms and was turned away at the medical unit and sent back to his dorm.
“They’re not telling us anything,” he said in an interview with the AP. “They just they’re not equipped to handle it.”
Congressional leaders and prison advocates are pressing the Justice Department to release at-risk inmates ahead of a potential outbreak, arguing that the public health guidance to stay 6 feet (1.83 meters) away from other people is nearly impossible behind bars.
“There is no adequate possible plan, certainly not without greatly decreasing the population in these institutions,” said David Patton, executive director and chief attorney at the Federal Defenders of New York. “There is simply not enough space in there.”
Barr sent a memo to the Bureau of Prisons on Thursday to increase the use of home confinement and identify non-violent, at-risk inmates who “might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement rather than in BOP facilities.”
Prison staff members in Florida and South Carolina described scenes of inmates allowed to be far closer than the 6-foot recommendation, situations that leave correctional officers and prison employees also at risk.
At Coleman, a large federal prison complex near Orlando, Florida, dozens of inmates were crowded last week into the commissary, admissions area and prison yard, a staff member said.
At a minimum security federal prison in Bennettsville, South Carolina, inmates were let out of their cells two units at a time, nearly 250 people at a time. They crowded into open spaces and filled up a room to watch television — about 20 inmates sitting no more than 3 feet (0.91 meters) apart, correctional officer Charles D’Apice said.
“There is no social distancing on the inside,” D’Apice said. “They’re telling the inmates to stay 6 feet apart from each other, but then they let 120 in a unit out together. They get as close as they want.”
At the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the notorious federal jail where Jeffrey Epstein killed himself last year, one staff member said gloves are readily available but masks are not. The staff restrooms are running empty of even the most basic pandemic need: soap.
Carvajal said in a statement that cleaning, sanitation and medical supplies had been inventoried and there were “ample supplies on hand and ready to be distributed or moved to any facility as deemed necessary.” The agency had also ordered additional supplies, he said.
Visitors are now banned from prisons, but inmates are still being shuttled to and from court appearances, where employees fear they could come into contact with the virus and bring it back behind bars. Inmates making those trips still need to be patted down and escorted by officers — close contact that flies in the face of social distancing requirements.
As part of the agency’s protocols for dealing with the virus, staff members who work in facilities in areas with “sustained community transmission” are having their temperature taken before their shifts start. If it’s too high, they’ll be sent home.
But officers at a medium-security federal prison in Jesup, Georgia, described broken thermometers hampering screenings. When a staff member got a frighteningly low reading of 89 degrees — an indication of hypothermia — management argued that each person’s body temperature is different and refused to replace the thermometers, they said.
Pam Milwood, a local union president at Jesup, said staff members who report being sick are still being told to work, their temperatures taken not by medical staff.
“How do you determine that I look sick and you don’t? Who makes that call? You have a factory foreman over there taking our temperatures, not even clinical. Who is he to make that call?” she said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.
Worldwide, there have been more than 585,000 cases and more than 26,000 deaths. In the United States, there have been more than 95,000 cases and more than 1,300 deaths.
Sisak reported from New York. Associated Press writers Jim Mustian and Martha Mendoza contributed to this report.