Orangeburg County detention center in South Carolina, which house city, county, state, and federal prisoners and those awaiting trials.

Orangeburg County detention center in South Carolina, which house city, county, state, and federal prisoners and those awaiting trials. James R. Poston/Shutterstock

Federal Prisons Will Resume Social Visits By October 3

Worries about the Bureau of Prison's ability to keep staff and inmates safe during the pandemic persist.

On Monday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons instructed facilities to safely resume social visits for inmates no later than October 3—more than six months after such visits were suspended due to the pandemic. All visitors will be screened and they, along with inmates, will be required to wear face masks. 

Andre Matevousian, assistant director of BOP’s Correctional Programs Division, sent a memo, obtained by Government Executive, outlining how wardens at its 122 locations nationwide must begin devising plans to restart social visits, which must comply with health and safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. BOP suspended social visits on March 13 as part of its initial coronavirus response. 

“We are committed to protecting the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, as well as our staff, their families, and the communities we live and work in,” BOP spokesperson Scott Taylor told Government Executive on Tuesday. “It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities; therefore, every [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommended precaution will be incorporated into our visiting procedures.” 

While it is incumbent on each location to create its own plan, Matevousian listed aspects each plan must include: 

  • Plexiglas or another barrier should separate inmates and visitors, but if that’s not possible, they should be kept six feet apart. 
  • The number of visitors allowed in visiting rooms and lobbies should be based on areas’ size and capacity for maintaining social distance. 
  • Inmates should have an opportunity for visits at least twice a month.
  • Tables, chairs and other high-contact areas should be cleaned between visits and visit scheduling should include time for disinfection.
  • Prison personnel must conduct temperature checks and ask visitors about symptoms before allowing them to enter facilities. 
  • Inmates and visitors must wear face coverings. 
  • No food or beverages should be allowed, but special accommodations may be made for babies.  

Inmates in quarantine or isolation are precluded from having social visitors. Locations must submit their plans to their regional directors and the Correctional Programs Division by September 18.

Some correctional officers are concerned about the change. “The inmates’ families are going to either contract COVID-19 [at] the facility or introduce it then sue,” one Miami correctional officer told Government Executive on Tuesday. “They’re going into these locations where it’s not safe” because there are still coronavirus outbreaks and social distancing isn’t always possible in some facilities. 

Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., a member of the law enforcement caucus who has been a strong supporter for BOP oversight and accountability, also expressed concern about the resumption of social visits. “While inmates should not be isolated from people who can help them successfully reintegrate into society following their term, BOP has a responsibility to get this virus under control within its facilities and to keep staff, inmates, and surrounding communities safe.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 1,795 inmates and 667 staff with open coronavirus cases. So far, 10,669 inmates and 929 staff have recovered. There have been 118 inmates and two staff deaths. 

In the memo, BOP said that it would extend phase nine of its coronavirus action plan through Sept. 30. This builds on previous iterations of guidance, but allows for more court visits, inmate activities, intakes and transfers, among other things. 

Taylor said the bureau is using video conferencing for attorney-client meetings and judicial proceedings since legal visits are still suspended. However, facilities can make accommodations on a case-by-case basis to ensure that all inmates have access to their counsels.