Bureau of Prisons coronavirus response under fire: ‘Reactive,’ not ‘proactive,’ inmates, staff say

(WASHINGTON) — In an internal message to Bureau of Prisons staff about coronavirus over the weekend, BOP director Michael Carvajal asked employees to “have faith” that they are doing the right thing, that they will protect inmates and staff and that staff must not let fear of the virus, “distract us from our daily tasks.”

However, inmates and BOP staff from facilities hit hard by the virus paint a very different picture. Prison employees spoke to ABC News about what they said was BOP’s lack of preparedness which they believe jeopardizes the safety of officers on the ground and inmates in facilities.

There are over 200 inmates across the country who have tested positive, the BOP posted on its COVID-19 website.

At least two officials described to ABC News a lack of communication between the central office in Washington, D.C., and the boots on the ground — especially when it came to combating the spread of the virus at facilities.

BOP rolled out the last stage of a five-phase strategic plan on March 31, which took the most restrictive measures, including keeping inmates in their “assigned cells or quarters” for 14 days and stopping all inmate transfers between facilities.

In a statement to ABC News, the Bureau of Prisons said it has “taken, and will continue to take, aggressive steps to protect the safety and security of all staff and inmates as well as visitors and members of the public.”

The Bureau pointed to that five-phase plan, which in addition to the last phase, included a task force to “begin strategic planning and building on our already existing procedures for managing pandemics.”

Some of the other measures, the Bureau said it took in that plan are suspending social and legal visits, limited access for contractors and volunteers, and ” inventorying sanitation, cleaning, and medical supplies and procuring additional supplies of these items.”

“I think that there’s much more that they could have done prior to now. They could have followed the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” Congressman Fred Keller, a Pennsylvania Republican with two federal prisons in his district, told ABC News.

Keller has introduced the PANDEMIC Act, a bill that calls for putting a halt to all inmate transfers during the coronavirus outbreak.

The CDC recommends social distancing, a practice of staying 6 feet apart and avoiding mass crowds or gatherings.

“I think they’ve done things as business as usual and haven’t followed the guidelines that have been set forth by the coronavirus task force to flatten the curve and the results of them not doing that are evident because they now have more cases than do three states,” Keller said. “And that to me, shows that they need to be more proactive.”

The BOP told ABC News that it is “constantly updating our nationwide guidance in accordance with the CDC’s updates.”

Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Elkton in Ohio, houses 2,500 inmates. Three inmates have died from coronavirus and more are being placed on ventilators by the day.

In early March, staff at the facility were already being screened for COVID-19, but according to local union president Joseph Mayle, staff screening was shut down, not by FCI Elkton’s warden, but by someone above the warden who Mayle stressed, has been working together with him to be proactive.

The local BOP Officer union president, explained that the worry is always the virus coming into the facility from the outside through a staff member, new inmate or visitor.

Mayle said though precautions were taken to keep the virus out of the facility, he told ABC News he received word from BOP headquarters that there needed to be inmates showing symptoms of COVID-19 to begin staff screening.

“They are always and always have been reactive instead of proactive,” Mayle said.

Mayle said that BOP gave the facility five testing kits and then received 80 from Columbiana County, Ohio — where the prison is located.

According to a memo obtained by ABC News, dated March 31, the Columbiana County Health Department instructed officers to only go to and from the facility, wear a mask and not allow visitors in their homes.

The prison’s medical team has been stretched so thin, according to Gov. Mike Dewine, that the Ohio National Guard has been called into the facility to assist with medical care.

One inmate housed at FCI Danbury in Connecticut, who says she was sick with the virus, spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

She said she had to beg for an ambulance and when she was at the hospital, was monitored by officers 24 hours a day.

According to the inmate, an inadequate thermometer misread her temperature as normal but she claims she had a fever. She also said that she was treated “like an animal” with no access to clean clothes.

There are 28 inmates and 12 staff who’ve tested positive for the virus at the female facility, according to BOP’s website.

A pregnant correctional officer at FCI Jessup, outside of Atlanta, returned from an overseas trip and was told she needed to quarantine. However, about seven days later, she says she was called back into work — unable to refuse or forced to use her own personal time to take off.

FCI Jessup Union President Pamela Millwood told ABC News that officers in the facility do not have access to hand sanitizer and were just given N95 protection masks this week.

“The institution is not concerned with our staff being exposed to COVID-19. When staff have reported exposure, the agency’s doctor, Sylvie Cohen has directed that so long as staff are not symptomatic they immediately return to work or use their own leave,” Milwood told ABC News by e-mail.

“All it will take is one diagnosis and we will be the new Oakdale,” Millwood said.

FCI Oakdale in Louisiana — the scene of the first major outbreak inside the Bureau of Prisons, has been hit hard with the coronavirus according to data on BOP’s website.

In the internal message to staff, Carajval praised the agency for its fight against the disease.

“Even as I speak, our numbers of infection are increasing, however, we are doing a good job working against an unseen threat and I am proud of the fight we are waging daily. We are continuing to revise and update our Action Plans in response to the fluid nature of the pandemic, and in response to changing guidance from experts at the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Justice, White House COVID Task Force and the Office of Personnel Management,” BOP director Carajval said in the message.

“We are doing everything possible to mitigate all risks, seen and unseen, so we can complete our mission with minimal impact,” he continued.

Ronald Morris, the local union president told ABC News that he thinks the BOP “messed up.”

“Make them show their internal memos that they had a plan. I don’t believe that they had a plan. I don’t think they were thinking, or it was even on the radar, or they had the foresight to see the devastation that this causes and thought about what it did to any federal prison systems after it got in the federal prison system,” Morris said.

The BOP told ABC News that epidemiologists from the CDC and Louisiana Department of Health “commended” Oakdale staff and “confirmed” their compliance with CDC guidelines. The agency also said that they are sending other scientists to another facility.

“The BOP is working with CDC epidemiologists to review and address the BOP’s response to COVID and the CDC will send personnel to two of our prisons that are sites of sustained transmission in Forrest City, Arkansas, and Oakdale, Louisiana,” the agency said in a statement.

On March 28, the first federal inmate died from COVID-19 at FCI Oakdale. Last week, the ACLU sued BOP on behalf of the inmates at FCI Oakdale, claiming they are not receiving adequate care.

BOP told ABC News last week that it doesn’t comment on pending ligation.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), in New York City, where convicted sex offender, Jeffery Epstein died by suicide, does not have a plan to deal with a potential outbreak, sources told ABC News.

Two sources also told ABC News that at MCC and at other facilities across the country, officers are being stretched to the limit, forced to work 12-hour shifts.

MCC is a BOP facility and has not directly respond to ABC News’ request for comment about MCC, but did highlight the five phase plan.

In a Friday night memo to the Bureau of Prisons director, Attorney General William Barr called for the “appropriate transfers to home confinement of all appropriate inmates held at FCI Oakdale, LA, FCI Danbury, CT, FCI Elkton, OH and other similarly situated BOP facilities where COVID-19 is materially affecting operations.”

At FCI Aliceville, in Alabama, prison sources told ABC News that inmates who are supposed to be under quarantine because they are symptomatic, are being housed with uninfected inmates.

BOP previously told ABC News, that because of the shortage in tests anyone who is exhibiting symptoms, is automatically assumed to have COVID-19 and confirmed in a statement to ABC News that they are following CDC guidelines.

Officials say one potential source of contamination is the transfer of inmates from facility to facility.

One source, who described conversations with Bureau of Prisons director Carvajal, told ABC News that BOP started to “play word games and pass the buck,” regarding inmate transfers between facilities.

Multiple sources told ABC News that inmate transfers are still occurring, although BOP notes that transfers are down 81% from when they started.

The source who spoke of weaving through BOP bureaucracy, said that one after another, up-the-chain management kept saying they needed an act of Congress to stop transfers, after initially placing the blame on the court system and U.S. Marshals.

“We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families, and the communities we live and work in. It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities,” the agency said in a statement to ABC News.

Mayle expressed what staff at his facility are feeling at the moment: anxious and scared to take the virus home to their loved ones.

He said right now there is a lot of “angst, anxiety and anger,” among staff.

“We believe that the Bureau of Prisons isn’t taking proper precautions to take care of staff.”

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