Inmates stand on the roof of the San Vittore prison to protest after restrictions that were imposed on family visits to prevent coronavirus transmissions in Milan, Italy, on Monday. The Federal Bureau of Prisons says it is prepared for the coronavirus.

Inmates stand on the roof of the San Vittore prison to protest after restrictions that were imposed on family visits to prevent coronavirus transmissions in Milan, Italy, on Monday. The Federal Bureau of Prisons says it is prepared for the coronavirus. Antonio Calanni / AP

Federal Prison Employees and Others Question BOP’s Readiness for Coronavirus  

There are no confirmed cases yet, but the bureau should have been more “proactive,” said one employee.

While the Federal Bureau of Prisons is confident in its ability to protect staff and inmates from the novel coronavirus, some employees, lawmakers, union officials and advocacy groups expressed skepticism.

The number of coronavirus cases and deaths continues to rise every day as the disease is spreading rapidly throughout the United States. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has 122 locations nationwide with approximately 176,000 inmates and 37,000 employees, does not have a confirmed case yet, but is at a heightened risk because of the close proximity of people, frequent foot traffic and common practice spread of diseases, criminal justice experts said

The agency asserted it is prepared to handle any potential outbreaks, quarantines and/or resulting inmate riots. It also launched a new screening tool last week for inmates or staff who might have traveled through high-risk areas recently. However, those working inside the facilities and outside observers were not as confident about the agency’s readiness.

“The Bureau of Prisons continues to provide information to staff and inmates regarding practicing good hygiene and other information regarding BOP's initial and preventive preparations,” said Scott Taylor, BOP spokesperson. “As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve, the BOP updates and refines its recommendations, guidance and protocols, and will continue to provide helpful information to staff, inmates and federal, state and local partners.” Also, the bureau “has the staff and resources available to address any COVID-19 issues as they arise.”

If staff has traveled to any countries or regions of concern recently, they need to fill out the screening tool (which is a list of questions regarding contact history, travel and symptoms) that will be reviewed before they come back to work. As for inmates, BOP said the bureau has “an internal web-based system for reporting infectious diseases and outbreaks, allowing access to health care and correctional professionals system-wide.”

Taylor said the agency is continuing to evaluate and provide flexible options to staff and is largely heeding guidance from the Office of Personnel Management regarding telework and leave options. A California correctional worker provided Government Executive with a guidance memo that Nicole English, BOP health services assistant director, sent to staff on Monday. The memo outlines the new tool, workplace flexibilities (such as telework, weather and safety leave, and sick leave) and best health practices. The correctional worker pointed out that “at the facility level we have no staff who telework, [so] that would only work with a handful of staff around the country.”

The inability of most staff members to work remotely is one of the reasons why some are worried about the agency’s response to the coronavirus. 

“Over the years, there have been numerous, well-documented public health and safety failures in American detention facilities–at the federal, state, and local levels,” said National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers President Nina Ginsberg in a statement on March 4. “Unfortunately, given the volume of incarcerated people in America, the conditions under which they are detained, and the current spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, there is every reason to question whether American detention facilities, as a whole, are up to this challenge.”

Joe Rojas, the southeast regional vice president at the Council of Prison Locals, said “[BOP] should have been proactive with this way back in late January, early February,” and his union has made recommendations to the agency related to visitations, contractors, inmate transportation, employee training, providing hand sanitizer and other supplies, but has not heard back.

In reference to the deadly prison riots in Italy because of restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus outbreak, he said, “the same thing can happen over here” and the agency isn’t ready to handle it. That is “nothing new, it’s a systematic failure from years of not having the proper leadership in place,” Rojas added.  

The California correctional worker said that locations are coming up with individualized plans to address illness prevention, in addition to the memo they got from central management. Also he said he has not received any written guidance yet on how to handle inmates with potential cases of coronavirus.

“History has shown time and time again that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has never been a proactive agency, but instead a reactive agency,” said the BOP employee. “In a case like the coronavirus it unfortunately will prove costly not only to the taxpayers but the staff in these facilities.”

A Florida correctional officer echoed these concerns and said that BOP’s response so far has been “inadequate and incompetent at best,” as it’s still running “quasi-normal operations.” The employee said the agency’s long-term issues such as understaffing of correctional officers and recruiting and retaining medical staff could affect its ability to manage potential outbreaks. 

In congressional testimony on Wednesday, the American Federation of Government Employees, under which the Council of Prison Locals is housed, said “we are concerned that workers who provide direct patient care and emergency services to individuals who have contracted COVID-19 lack clear, specific guidance and effective preventive equipment and gear to protect themselves from contracting the virus.” BOP employees could fall under this category. The union also recommended that “employees required to work and interface with individuals who have been quarantined or diagnosed with COVID-19 should be provided hazardous duty pay.”

When asked if OPM is considering hazard pay, OPM Communications Director Anthony Marucci told Government Executive: “We are coordinating with the Coronavirus Task Force and multiple agencies. OPM will issue guidance as necessary to protect federal employees and ensure the continual operation of the government.” He said all coronavirus-related guidance can be found on OPM’s website.

When presented with some of the criticisms, the Bureau of Prisons reiterated its commitment to protecting staff and inmates by taking a “comprehensive approach to manage its response, which includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures” and updating guidance as the situation evolves. “BOP has a well-established history of managing and responding to communicable disease outbreaks, like Ebola and influenza,” said Taylor.

On operational plans, he stated: 

Every BOP facility has contingency plans in place to address a large range of concerns, to include infectious diseases, and is fully equipped to implement these plans as necessary.  Each facility determines its operating status based on a range of issues. For safety and security reasons, we do not provide specifics with respect to an institution's decision to modify operations. We can share that modified operations refers to a temporary change to some institution operations that may include inmate movement, programs, and/or services. Institutions remain on modified operations in order to review the issue and ensure the safety of staff and inmates.

Additionally, 15 Democratic senators wrote to BOP Director Michael Carvajal on Monday with a list of 17 detailed questions on how the agency plans to manage employee protection, segregated housing for infected inmates, food services, court visits, facilities’ sanitation, communication of prevention plans, health care services and more.

 “Over 175,000 individuals are incarcerated in federal prisons and jails and thousands of incarcerated people, their families and friends and correctional staff move in and out of federal prisons every day,” they wrote. “As a result, the uncontained spread of coronavirus in federal prisons and jails endangers the federal prison population, correctional staff and the general public.” The senators would like a response by March 16. 

Erich Wagner contributed to this report.