A CNN article by Casey Tolan, Nelli Black, and Drew Griffin in early August outlined the conditions within Seagoville Federal Prison, where 1300 out of 1750 inmates and 28 of roughly 300 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.
The article outlined the limited and questionable use of the home confinement and compassionate release systems across the federal correctional facility system as a whole – of 157,000 total inmates, only about 7,444 have been granted home confinement under the CARES Act and only about 900 have been granted compassionate release this year. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has failed to provide a breakdown of the inmates released at each institution, but it is fair to guess that the use of these tools is limited at Seagoville just as it is in institutions across the country. Detrimental consequences ensue. The article recalls James Giannetta who was denied compassionate release and home confinement by his warden before contracting COVID-19 which led to his death as well as numerous inmates and family members who have sought and been denied relief.
When James Giannetta first called his brother Russ in late June to tell him that the coronavirus was beginning to spread in his Texas federal prison, Russ could hear the fear in his voice. “This place is exploding,” James warned.
Russ soon got another call: James, a 65-year-old inmate with diabetes and HIV, had tested positive for the virus himself. Within days, he was rushed to a hospital as his oxygen levels plummeted. A few weeks later, after his condition deteriorated and he was placed on a ventilator, he was dead.
Punishment or Death Sentence?
One inmate reports that, in the notification denying his request for compassionate release, his warden wrote that COVID-19 was not considered an “extraordinary and compelling circumstance.” Contrary to this assertion, however, institutions across the country have seen massive outbreaks of the virus. A judge in Ohio ordered a mass release of inmates at a Federal Prison dealing with an outbreak, citing that the conditions bordered on “cruel and unusual punishment.” This order was overturned because the Federal Bureau of Prisons was not found to be “deliberately indifferent” to the risks posed by COVID-19, however, instances like the outbreak at Seagoville’s Prison system bring this into question. Despite documented outbreaks and their dangers, Seagoville has not taken COVID-19 seriously enough to release at-risk inmates. In spite of numerous deaths across the country and multiple inmate deaths in their own institution, Seagoville does not consider COVID-19 to be an extraordinary and compelling circumstance. Other BOP institutions have been investigated regarding these issues.
Improvements are Needed
CNN was not able to obtain interviews with any of the officials involved in policymaking, but a Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson emphasized that cloth masks, mass testing as of June, and increased sanitation protocols were in place to manage the outbreak at Seagoville. Inmates, however, report that many guards do not consistently wear masks and do not enforce inmate masking. Although mass testing is in place, delayed test results prevent timely isolation protocols. While sanitation protocols are invigorated, social distancing guidelines simply cannot be maintained in a highly-populated institution like Seagoville and federal prisons across the country. Read more about the mishandling of the pandemic as our sources continue to come through.