The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., had the first known case of coronavirus in the federal prison system. The facility is shown here in February 2019.

The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., had the first known case of coronavirus in the federal prison system. The facility is shown here in February 2019. Kathy Willens / AP

Federal Prison System Goes Into ‘Modified Lockdown’

New procedures due to coronavirus concerns will last 14 days, after which the agency will re-evaluate. 

On Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons implemented what staff and union officials are calling a “modified lockdown” to restrict inmate movement as the novel coronavirus continues to spread in the United States and in some prison facilities.  

The change in operations is the fifth phase of BOP’s response to the pandemic that started in January, according to a press release sent Tuesday night. The Associated Press reported on BOP’s first coronavirus case on March 21, and as of late afternoon Wednesday there were 57 inmates and 37 staff members with confirmed cases, according to the agency’s online tracker. The first federal inmate died of coronavirus on Saturday. BOP has been re-evaluating and altering its operations at its 122 locations nationwide as the pandemic has worsened. 

Starting on Wednesday, inmates will be secured in their cells or quarters for 14 days, which BOP noted is “based on health concerns, not disruptive inmate behavior.” Agency officials said inmates will still have access to normal programs and services, such as mental health treatment and education. However, group gatherings in the commissary, laundry, shower, telephone and computer areas will be limited.

Additionally, BOP is working with the United States Marshals Service to “significantly decrease” inmate movements. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and the largest federal employee union have been raising concerns about this. After 14 days, the agency will re-evaluate the situation and decide whether or not to continue these modified operations.

Joe Rojas, the Southeast regional vice president at the Council of Prison Locals, called this situation a “modified lockdown.” He said in the 25 years he’s been involved with the BOP, the only time something similar happened was the full, nationwide lockdown in October 1995 following a series of riots. BOP officials, union members and criminal justice experts have been speculating recently that some type of lockdown may happen during the coronavirus. 

After the press release was sent out on Tuesday night, Government Executive spoke with Charles D’Apice, a South Carolina correctional officer and vice president of his local union chapter, who heard speculation about such a change happening, but at the time was not aware of  the new procedures. After reviewing the release, he questioned how effective the policies will be because they could be “open to interpretation.” As a union leader, he said, “I just want to make sure that staff are safe.”

“What they're doing is quite honestly, ... being very vague,” said Don Williams, father of a slain correctional officer who became an advocate for federal prison employee safety through his organization Voices of JOE. “Nobody seems to be able to pin them down to specifics. Like, are you gonna lock it down? Or are you not?” he said. “And they seem to be very inconsistent throughout the whole country” with how they move inmates, practice social distancing, conduct testing and handle other procedures. 

“Phase five was pushed out to the field yesterday afternoon and subsequently posted to the BOP's intranet for all staff to view,” BOP spokesman Justin Long told Government Executive on Wednesday, when asked how and when the agency alerted staff members to the changes.

“I’m encouraged that the bureau is taking our concerns seriously about the spread of this dangerous virus within its facilities,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., in a press release on Wednesday. Cartwright has been a vocal advocate for protecting prison staff and inmates during the pandemic. 

“However, I will continue to keep a close eye on their testing capacity and transfers ordered by the U.S. Marshals Service,” he stated. “I strongly urge BOP and the Marshals to quickly come to an agreement on limiting inmate movements only in cases of extreme need.”

NEXT STORY: Viewpoint: Protect Dr. Fauci