Federal Prison in a Pandemic: Transparency At Elkton FCI
Blakinger & Hamilton
Elkton FCI, a federal prison hotspot for COVID-19 cases earlier this summer and the object of legal scrutiny due to its handling of the virus, was outlined in an article for The Marshall Project by Keri Blakinger and Keegan Hamilton.
In the article, Blakinger and Hamilton discuss the discrepancies between the conditions within Elkton FCI and other prisons as reported by staff and inmates. This was in opposition to the official BOP guidance on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite continuous assurances that the BOP is taking extraordinary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Blakinger and Hamilton point out instances where this was not the case.
Inmates report the BOP’s consistent failure to follow its own procedures regarding quarantine conditions, staff movement, and pressuring staff to work while sick. As a result, at least 11 class action lawsuits have been filed against the BOP since the start of the pandemic, demanding safer and more humane conditions for inmates.
As information surrounding COVID-19 was rapidly changing, especially near the start of the pandemic, some confusion is expected. For example, although the BOP first warned of the dangers of COVID-19 in January and locked down in March, staff at Elkton FCI report very little guidance on actual procedures for handling a sick inmate for several weeks. This breakdown in communication is a common thread throughout pandemic responses.
While this confusion is theoretically understandable, Blakinger and Hamilton point out that low-security institutions like Elkton FCI have been aware of the dangers a pandemic would pose to their systems for several years.
After a MERS outbreak in 2012, the BOP issued guidance for keeping dorm-style prisons safer, such as keeping beds 6 feet apart in the case of a pandemic. Pictures and inmate reports indicate that this is not happening at all.
The BOP has also reported a shortage of doctors since 2016 – a difficulty compounded by budget cuts and hiring freezes under the Trump administration that have forced medical staff to double as guards in some cases, greatly increasing their workload and thus decreasing the available medical care provided to inmates.
The pandemic has made these shortages painfully clear, with many inmates reporting symptoms left without access to medical care and delayed responses to emergent reports. Inmates are left, in many cases, to care for one another instead.
This lack of medical care availability is made more severe given the demographics of those in prison. The BOP currently reports about 10,000 inmates over the age of 60 in their custody, many of whom have other underlying conditions that make them particularly susceptible to COVID-19.
CARES & Home Confinement
The vulnerability of the prison population could have been mitigated somewhat by the use of the home confinement function of the CARES Act, however, the BOP has released a very small percentage of inmates. At Elkton FCI specifically, Judge James Gwin ordered the movement or release of thousands of inmates after Elkton FCI’s scant use of the home confinement function. This ruling was later overturned by the 6th Circuit of Appeals, making similar rulings somewhat bleak.
Discrepancies from the BOP
The BOP claims exemplary preventative measures as a reason for failing to release vulnerable inmates, however, many discrepancies are present in their claims.
For example, the BOP asserts that transfers between prisons officially stopped in March, decreasing the likelihood of inter-institutional spread, however, transfers of seemingly healthy inmates continued at a lower rate and newly convicted individuals continued to face incarceration in overcrowded facilities.
When the national guard was deployed to assist Elkton FCI with their outbreak, the BOP reported only 8 inmates and 1 staff member with active positive cases of COVID-19. However, the union reported 37 inmates hospitalized, 71 sick in isolation, 3 sick staff members. This coupled with numerous exposed staff still working as a result of understaffing prior to the pandemic.
This under-reporting of case numbers by the BOP extends into staff territories as well. Robin Grubbs, a prison case manager, tested positive for COVID-19 after death, but the BOP refused to acknowledge her death as COVID-19-related.
Where is Transparency
These discrepancies and poor communication marry to create an environment of concealment rather than transparency.
For example, the BOP consistently asserts that all sick inmates are treated according to CDC guidelines, but sick inmates at Elkton FCI are packed together in one room and guards still travel between units.
Additionally, beds are very close together. Aaron Campbell, an inmate who exposed prison conditions using a contraband cell phone, was punished with solitary confinement for the cell phone and told he would avoid punishment if he said the video was fake – a deal he refused.
This mismanagement has detrimental effects for inmates and their families. In addition to the 125 deaths attributed to COVID-19 within the prisons thus far and the thousands of infections and numerous hospitalizations, the BOP fails to communicate about these conditions with families.
Johnny Joe Desilva, an Elkton FCI inmate who was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this year, was hospitalized, intubated, put on dialysis, and released before his fiancé and family had clear contact with him or knew what was going on.
When will our prison system embrace the transparency and get the help needed? When will our very own incarcerated receive the humane care that is their right to have?
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