Federal Prisons Flunked the Pandemic, Senators Say

An oversight hearing on the Federal Bureau of Prisons highlighted how the failure to keep Covid-19 in check left 230 dead across inmate populations and corrections staff. 

Michael Carvajal, director of the Bureau of Prisons, testifies Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — One year since they first recommended that federal prisons trim their inmate counts to maximize safety against the novel coronavirus, a Senate committee demanded answers Thursday from officials now grappling with a distressing body count.

To make his point that that many prisoners who qualified for home confinement didn’t receive it, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin of Jimmy Monk, a first-time offender who was convicted of bank fraud in July 2020.

The 60-year-old was given a sentence of less than a year at Talladega Prison Camp, but by November he collapsed in a shower and died of Covid-19. The Bureau of Prisons reported that he had no Covid symptoms, but emails home and stories from within the prison revealed the telltale signs. 

“Why was a man like Jimmy Monk, a first-time offender, convicted on a nonviolent bank fraud offense, not placed in home confinement?” Durbin asked Michael Carvajal, director of the Bureau of Prisons for the last 14 months.

Former Attorney General William Barr installed Carvajal as BOP director in February 2020, just weeks before the world took stock of a pandemic that would go on to infect more than 275,000 incarcerated people across the United States. At the state and federal level, 1,700 individuals have died behind bars of the virus. The death toll within the federal Bureau of Prisons meanwhile includes 230 inmates and at least four staff members. 

Carvajal explained Thursday that, while he couldn’t comment on this case, he was confident that any inmate who qualified for home confinement received it. The only disqualifying charges were a primary offense of violence, a sex offense, terrorism or a deportation order. He claimed that the Bureau has transferred over 24,000 inmates to home confinement since the passage of the CARES Act stimulus package. More than 7,000 inmates are home today. 

Durbin and his Republican counterpart on the committee, former chairman Chuck Grassley, wrote to Carvajal and Attorney General Barr at the start of the pandemic, asking them to better bolster prisons against infection. 

“We have reviewed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Covid-19 Action Plan, which covers health screening, limits on outside visits, staff travel, and inmate transfers, but notably does not include any measures to protect the most vulnerable staff and inmates,” they wrote, joined by a dozen fellow senators. 

The lawmakers suggested that the BOP use the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program, which was reauthorized and expanded by the First Step Act, to send vulnerable inmates home. “This pilot program permits the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to transfer nonviolent offenders to home detention if they are sixty years or older and have served 2/3 of their term of imprisonment, among other requirements,” according to their letter.

Democratic Senator Cory Booker poses questions to a Trump administration appointee at a Thursday, April 15, 2021, hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)

Most prisons are not laid out in a manner that would let inmates and staff follow the recommended safety procedures to mitigate spread of the virus: standing six feet apart and quarantining. To make social distancing easier, most states tried to reduce their populations through home confinement and compassionate release. 

But Senator Cory Booker pointed out Thursday that framework that the Justice Department uses to evaluate candidates for home confinement and compassionate release helped some more than others. 

“It shows sort of a stunning bias in terms of the number of African-Americans versus number of whites who seem to qualify under that Pattern tool,” he said, using the acronym for the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Need.

Carvajal acknowledged that the tool had disproportionately aided white inmates over people of color. In January 2020, the tool was updated after a review found that the criteria based on the age of the inmate’s first arrest, first conviction and voluntary surrender led to a bias against inmates of color who are also disproportionately policed, arrested and convicted. 

While the pandemic provided an opportunity for prisons to ease overcrowding, the Justice Department released a memo in January 2021, days before President Donald Trump left the White House, stating that all who were released on home confinement must report back to prison once the health emergency ends.  

If the decision isn’t reversed, thousands of incarcerated individuals will be sent back to prison cells.

“It’s clear that the Bureau has been far too rigid to approving transfers to home confinement and compassionate release, to reduce prison populations, and to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” Durbin said Thursday.

“Simply put, our prison system at the federal level is failing,” he warned. 

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin at a Thursday hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)
%d bloggers like this: