Attorney General William Barr watches as inmates work in a computer class during a tour of a federal prison in July 2019.

Attorney General William Barr watches as inmates work in a computer class during a tour of a federal prison in July 2019. AP file photo

Lawmakers, Union Urge Halt to All Prison Inmate Transfers

The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ preventative measures are not enough to prevent coronavirus spread, critics say.

The largest federal employee union and lawmakers from both parties are calling on the federal prison system to completely suspend inmate transfers to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

The Bureau of Federal Prisons released guidance on March 13 that restricted most inmate travel for 30 days, after which the bureau said it would reassess the situation. Then on March 18, it issued updated the guidance that expanded the exceptions for such movements. Bipartisan lawmakers and the American Federation of Government Employees, which exclusively represents BOP employees nationwide, are calling for a stop to this. 

Meanwhile, the bureau said it is doing everything it can to protect inmates and staff—new measures include a 14-day quarantine for all inmates entering a BOP facility from an outside facility—and noted that some transfers are beyond its control.  

“BOP got it right the first time. They must revisit their COVID-19 plan to guarantee the safety of all employees and inmates, including supplying adequate amounts of personal protective equipment,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley in a press release on Tuesday. “It is imperative that all transport of inmates is ceased until the COVID-19 crisis is under control.” 

BOP said exceptions to movement suspension could involve writs, forensic studies, interstate agreements on detainers, physical or mental health reasons, halfway house placements and bed space. “The Bureau of Prisons has instituted a comprehensive management approach that includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures,” BOP Spokesman Justin Long told Government Executive. The movement suspension “does not mean the BOP has ceased all inmate movements because the federal judicial system as well as state courts continue to process criminal cases” and “BOP has no authority to refuse inmates brought to us by the [U.S. Marshall Service].”

Nonetheless, Shane Fausey, national president of the Council of Prison Locals C-33, a division of AFGE, told Government Executive, “I'm imploring the Attorney General William Barr to intervene and stop all inmate movement in the Bureau of Prisons until we get this virus under control [because] we want to protect our communities.” 

AFGE noted that 19 inmates not tested for coronavirus will be transferred to three federal facilities in Pennsylvania by the end of the week, among them 11 inmates from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., where an inmate recently tested positive for coronavirus. Also, one of the 32 inmates transferred from Oklahoma City to an institution in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, on Monday tested positive for coronavirus, The Daily Item reported

Joe Rojas, the southeast regional vice president at the Council of Prison Locals, said “it’s business as usual” at BOP and it’s hard to calculate the total amount of inmate transfer happening. 

In addition to the union, lawmakers from both parties have written to BOP Director Michael Carvajal with concerns about the transfers, including Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., and 11 House Democrats

Despite the coronavirus screenings BOP is doing before transfers, “there have been reports from across the country of asymptomatic spread of the virus, and numerous experts have warned of the danger of asymptomatic spread,” wrote the House Democrats, led by Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa. 

According to the BOP’s new online tracker, three inmates and three staff members at institutions across the country have confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. However, according to Government Executive’s calculations from union officials and other news outlets, there are at least 10 staff and 6 inmate confirmed cases. 

“To provide greater transparency for the public and manage expectations, effective March 25, 2020, the BOP implemented the same notification practice undertaken by state governments,” said Taylor when asked about the discrepancy. “The BOP’s public dashboard is updated daily at 3:00 p.m. E.S.T. based on the most recently available data from across the agency as reported by the BOP’s Office of Occupational Health and Safety.”