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March 8, 2022

A deep dive into federal prison struggles in response to the COVID pandemic

NPR has this lengthy new piece headlined "As COVID spread in federal prisons, many at-risk inmates tried and failed to get out," that effectively chronicles some of the ineffectiveness of the federal response as COVID worked its way through its massive prison systems.  Here are just a few snippets from the piece:

As of early March, officials at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) say 287 federal inmates have died from COVID-19, a count that does not include deaths in privately managed prisons.  Bureau officials have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic that they have a plan to keep the situation under control, but an NPR analysis of federal prison death records suggests a far different story.

The federal prison system has seen a significant rise in deaths during the pandemic years. In 2020, the death rate in prisons run by the BOP was 50% higher than the five years before the pandemic.  Last year, it was 20% higher, according to the NPR analysis of age-adjusted death rates.

Of those who died from COVID-19, nearly all were elderly or had a medical condition that put them at a higher risk of dying from the virus, NPR found.  Many of them seemed to sense their fate — and had tried to get out.  And those who made their case in court often faced a slow and complicated process that was unable to meet the pace of a rapidly spreading virus....

It's difficult to get a full view of how the federal prison system has responded to the pandemic at each of its 122 prisons nationwide, but NPR spoke with several current bureau employees who described issues that went against that plan, including the transfer of COVID-positive inmates between prisons and units.  "Our agency is reactive and not proactive. You know, they waited until it got out of hand and then tried to fix things, but by then it was too late," said Aaron McGlothin, a warehouse worker foreman and local union president at the federal prison in Mendota, Calif....

The determination for who can be sent home — and who cannot — is solely up to the BOP, and by the middle of November 2020, individual wardens became the final authority.  After [then Attorney General] Barr urged the use of home confinement, the BOP added its own criteria to the attorney general's list.

Home confinement existed before the pandemic, for certain inmates in the final six months or 10% of their sentence, whichever was less. And those inmates kept going home in this way during the pandemic.  As of early March of this year, more than 38,000 people had been released to home confinement during the pandemic. Of those, about 9,000 — or about 6% of the current federal prison population — were transferred directly because of the CARES Act.

It's unclear how many more people might have been eligible for CARES Act home confinement yet were not released. "CARES Act home confinement is, frankly, a black box," [Allison] Guernsey, of the University of Iowa, said. But she feels certain "we could have been releasing so many more people during the pandemic and we just chose not to."

March 8, 2022 at 09:41 AM | Permalink

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