COVID Guidance Left Fed Corrections Staff Confused: Report

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Illustration by EPG1961 via Flickr

While the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has developed COVID-19 guidance with input from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some BOP staff complain they have received confusing instructions about how to implement the BOP’s guidance, reports the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In a general survey conducted by the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspectors General, of the 28 percent of employees who responded, 59 percent thought its BOP’s guidance was not clear.

The BOP is responsible for the custody and care of about 129,000 federal inmates in BOP managed facilities and employed more than 37,000 staff as of May 2021.

To help with the pandemic, the BOP earmarked nearly $63 million for personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, and COVID testing kits for the staff and inmates.

But, like the rest of the world, COVID has hugely affected inmates and staff.

According to the report, BOP’s data, as of May, showed that 45,660 inmates have tested positive, and 237 inmates have died from the virus. Additionally, 6,972 staff members have tested positive and four have died.

Because of the confined spaces of these prisons, inmates are particularly vulnerable during the pandemic.

According to a D.C. Corrections Information Council report released in July, managing a pandemic in “varied Institutional settings” is challenging, as these institutions do not easily allow much social distancing, and system for distribution resources are complex, but that the BOP has a responsibility for the safety and welfare of over 170,000 staff and resident, says the Washington Post.

Also, due to the virus, inmates have faced rescued access to certain programs, services, visitors and facility spaces, notes the GAO report.

Because of quarantine procedures, staff availability has been reduced, while overtime has increased.

Inmates had “significant challenges accessing phone and email communication during the limited out-of-cell time provided” and prison staff didn’t consistently wear masks of personal protective equipment, says the D.C. Corrections Information Council report.

Also, 37 percent of D.C. prisoners who responses to a survey from the D.C. Corrections Information Council, they said they had not been able to get medical care in the past 60 days, while four out of five respondents said they had not been tested for COVID.

Many union leaders, prison heath care workers and advocates for prisoners’ rights say it has been troubling that the people  leading the federal prison systems Health Services Division during this pandemic have lacked medical licenses, according to the Marshall Project.

Nicole English, who became the senior official responsible for overseeing health care and safety of inmates and staff, has no hands-on health care experience.

The Marshal Project also notes that the BOP has failed to follow its own pandemic plan and was buying knock off N-95 masks.

Joe Rojas, a union leader who works at the Coleman prison complex in Florida says, “This is why our agency is broken. You have people who are unqualified, and you have a medical pandemic, but the leadership has zero medical background.”

After reviewing the BOP’s policies, data, and other documentation relating to the impact of COIVD-19 and how they address it, GAO has made three recommendations:

  • BOP evaluate communication of COVID-19 guidance;
  • Develop an approach to capture and share best practices and lessons learned; and
  • Develop an approached to ensure faculties apply these practices as appropriate.

Unless these changes are made, many more inmates and staff will continue to suffer under the conditions of this pandemic, the report warns.

Aaron McGlothin, the union president at Mendota federal prison in California, told The Marshall Project, “I don’t trust the agency [BOP]. I’m not putting my health and safety in the hands of the BOP.”

Gabriela Felitto is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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