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August 25, 2020

Spotlighting the still sorry state of federal prisons six months into a COVID pandemic

It has now be almost a full six months since my first post here flagging concerns about the intersection of incarceration and coronavirus, and since then I have covered this challenging story in dozens more posts. But the Washington Post has this notable new piece highlights that prison nation still has big COVID problems, and that matters seem to be even worse in federal prisons than in state systems. The piece is headlined "Prisoners and guards agree about federal coronavirus response: ‘We do not feel safe’," and here are excerpts:

Kareen “Troy” Troitino spent all of July working in a prison medical facility just as the coronavirus was surging through Miami’s Federal Correctional Institution, where the number of confirmed cases ballooned from a handful of prisoners to nearly 100 in a matter of days.  When he returned to work at FCI Miami in August, he was caught off guard when the prisoners welcomed him back with a laudatory uproar he said “sounded like the Super Bowl.”

Word had circulated among prisoners in the 1,000-person low-security facility that Troitino, a corrections officer and union president, was telling reporters, lawmakers and managers that despite assurances, the Bureau of Prisons’ response to the coronavirus pandemic was endangering the lives of federal employees and prisoners alike.  Troitino, who spoke to The Washington Post as a representative of his union, acknowledged that prisoners and guards don’t always find themselves on the same team; but in a pandemic, everyone’s fates are intertwined.  “All of us are trying to survive,” Troitino said.  “Your health affects me, and vice versa. Inmates and staff, we do not feel safe.”

Troitino is among the federal workers suing the government for hazard pay over what they say are risky conditions they’re forced to work under during the pandemic — but he’s hardly a disgruntled worker.  When the BOP announced Aug. 5 it had moved into Phase 9 of its covid-19 action plan, prisoners and their advocates panned the news as the bureau’s attempt to create the impression that the virus is under control in facilities while papering over a deepening health and safety crisis.

BOP Director Michael Carvajal has dismissed scrutiny of the bureau as “misinformation.” During a June Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on covid-19 best practices for prisons and jails, Carvajal testified that the bureau was well-prepared and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had praised the bureau after evaluating unspecified facilities in the early months of the pandemic.  As of June 1, Carvajal said 1,650 federal inmates and 171 bureau staff had tested positive.  Less than 12 weeks later, those numbers grew to 11,953 prisoners and 1,436 staff, with more than 120 combined deaths, according to UCLA’s Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

Covid-19 cases are proportionally higher and have spread faster in prisons than in the outside population, said Brendan Saloner, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who is studying the issue. Saloner told The Post federal public defenders contacted his team with troubling details from clients. “Their contention is that it’s worse in the BOP than in the state prisons,” he said....

Interviews with a dozen federal prison employees, prisoners, lawyers and health and legal experts who monitor correctional facilities, as well as reviews of lawsuits and petitions filed by prisoners and collected from the UCLA data project, show the ways by which the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems in federal prisons; they range from overcrowding and staff shortages to a lack of transparency around policies for personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing.

“It’s a complete disaster,” said Rob Norcross, an inmate at the minimum-security satellite camp at FCI Jesup in Georgia. The bureau’s stated guidelines about sanitization and social distancing don’t comport with reality, Norcross said: Prison camp inmates are barred from using hand sanitizer, lack cleaning supplies and have nowhere they can move to to create space....

Norcross’s complaints mirror those in a July report by the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General about conditions at a federal prison in Lompoc, Calif.: The OIG reported several issues, including a shortage of medical staffers to address prisoner health concerns and instances where prisoners who clearly exhibited covid-19 symptoms were not tested.  The areas where the Lompoc facility scored the lowest were related to adequate PPE supply for staff and prisoners, and adequate soap or hand sanitizer for prisoners.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) ... sent Carvajal letters demanding answers on testing and transparency. Warren and several congressional Democrats introduced a bill Aug. 6 that would require federal and local corrections facilities to collect and report comprehensive data on covid-19 infections and deaths. “Covid-19 is out of control in prisons and jails across the country — and the Trump Administration has failed to effectively manage this pandemic and protect the health and safety of incarcerated people, correctional staff, and the general public,” Warren said in the past week in a statement to The Post.

UCLA Law’s Sharon Dolovich, who leads the Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, echoed Warren’s criticism of the bureau, noting the data it does publish on coronavirus cases and deaths is non-comprehensive and opaque.  “The culture of secrecy that’s been allowed to develop in the nation’s prisons and jails over the past 40 years is antithetical to these institutions’ status in a democratic society,” she said.  “We have government officials who act as if this is their private information.”

August 25, 2020 at 10:41 AM | Permalink

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