“Safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure,” – The Bureau of Prisons’ mission appears right there on the website. And yet, the BOP’s policies regularly endanger inmate safety and humanity, particularly regarding COVID-19 cases.
COVID-19 and BOP Responsibility
Currently incarcerating 153,248 federal inmates, the BOP’s size and pervasiveness mirrors American views on criminal justice. The U.S. imprisons more people than any other country. The BOP is, in their own words “responsible for the custody and care of federal inmates.” However, the COVID-19 pandemic in the last nine months has revealed key points about inmate safety in BOP custody.
Past Points of Contention
Over the summer, the BOP’s mishandling of the virus and subsequent risking of inmate safety reared ugly consequences in numerous facilities. The ACLU intervened on behalf of Butner FCI inmates in May after the BOP failed to transfer inmates onto home confinement. A widespread outbreak of COVID-19 at Lompoc FCI in July triggered a shocking Pandemic Response Report. Almost 75% of Seagoville FCI inmates tested positive for COVID-19 in August.
Director Michael Carvajal recently referenced recent declines in hospitalization rates of inmates. He says that this is evidence that the BOP’s COVID-19 mitigation protocols work to protect inmate safety. However, positive testing spikes in numerous facilities tell a different story. The BOP has largely failed to make meaningful change since this summer.
New Outbreaks Threaten Prisoners
On December 9, Paula Reed Ward of TribLive reported that over 50% of Loretto FCI’s inmates tested positive for COVID-19. Some who fell ill had already sought compassionate release to avoid this very situation. The prison told one man that he qualified for CARES Act home confinement in October and then refused to release him.
That same week, FOX 31 out of Denver reported that Englewood FCI, the BOP institution housing the most positive COVID-19 cases at the time, also surpassed 50% of COVID-positive inmates.
Releases for Inmate Safety?
The ACLU also filed a lawsuit in the case of Waseca FCI, suing Director Carvajal and the Warden of Waseca FCI. Arguments abound that the BOP has not released enough inmates to enact effective social distancing for inmate safety.
Notably, the BOP has placed 18,658 inmates on home confinement. However, according to the FOX 9 article, only 8,025 of them reflect pandemic-related assignments. This constitutes about 5% of inmates in the BOP’s care.
Henry Culvyhouse of the Daily Independent also reports testimony from loved ones of Ashland FCI inmates. The family members document potentially inaccurate testing numbers, limited rations and food for inmates, and, as always, not enough space. Inmates are still tightly packed into facilities – in Ashland’s case, over 80 years old – with limited air circulation and close quarters.
As Director Carvajal has publicly stated multiple times, prisons are not made for social distancing. Nevertheless, the BOP carries stated responsibility and a moral imperative to protect those in its custody. Limited food and illness-inducing conditions fail to promote inmate safety and violate prisoner humanity. While the pandemic poses admittedly difficult challenges to the BOP, we believe that the country and the Bureau must take expansive steps to protect inmates in the coming months.
Firstly, we believe that the BOP must vaccinate all members of the public that enter and leave prisons daily. Currently there is a plan in place to vaccinate the staff at a few prisons. But it should not stop there: every person that walks into and out of a prison needs to be vaccinated; the guards, the janitors, the soda pop dispenser refillers, all of them. Director Carvajal has indicated that he cannot make the guards get tested for the virus. That probably means that he cannot make them take the vaccine either. But until everyone is vaccinated there will always be a risk of outbreaks.
Secondly, we believe that all inmates should receive vaccination as soon as possible. To some extent, incarcerated persons are in the same situation as people in nursing homes in that they simply cannot get away from each other. We the public will be paying for their COVID treatment as well as any supplemental treatment for long-term illnesses that arise.
Finally, we believe that all transfers between facilities must stop completely until vaccination is widely distributed. There are stories of inmates being transferred from one prison to another and taking the virus with them. The idea of moving people from one prison to another during a pandemic for a virus that travels asymptomatically defies all logic.