Officials Spar Over Covid Spread Through Prison System

Screenshot of a hearing Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2020, of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, an arm of the Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Prison officials defended their handling of the pandemic before the House on Tuesday even as reports show that nearly 20% of the federal inmate population have tested positive for Covid-19.

Congresswoman Karen Bass, a California Democrat who chairs the subcommittee that oversees prisons, began this morning’s hearing by reading some disturbing trends that the Council for Criminal Justice observed this fall.

The nonpartisan think tank found that 19 out of 20 confirmed Covid-19 clusters in the country as of August stemmed from incarceration facilities.

America is home to the largest incarcerated population in the world with more than 2 million behind bars in the U.S., and the latest figures from the federal Bureau of Prisons show that about 25,000 of its population of 124,870 inmates contracted the coronavirus this year.

There are about 10 times as many people in state prisons as in federal — the rest are in county-run facilities — and Bass emphasized that Americans are five times more likely to contract Covid-19 in prison.

Michael Carvajal, Bureau of Prisons director who testified before the subcommittee Wednesday, said the agency’s response to mitigating Covid-19 outbreaks has often been mischaracterized.

“Early on we developed quarantine and isolation procedures for inmates and mandated social distancing and use of face coverings,” Carvajal said. “Our procedures have proven effective as this is evidenced by the steep decline in our inmate hospitalizations, inmates on ventilators and deaths.”

Bass was critical, however, of the success of those procedures. She quoted a Justice Department Inspector General report that studied a federal complex in Oakdale, Louisiana, where up to six days elapsed before prisoners who had been exposed or tested positive for Covid-19 were isolated.

Carvajal insisted that the situation in Oakdale was not representative of the bureau’s policies.

“In a nutshell, we had some leadership issues there,” Carvajal said. “Our regional director had some concerns about the procedures not being enforced or followed. In essence, without getting into details, I removed the leadership.” 

While Carvajal said that inmates were tested when being moved from housing units, Bass reiterated the importance of testing prison staff — as those individuals had the potential to introduce unknown contagions to an isolated population. BOP figures show that 1,422 of its staffers are positive for Covid-19 today. The bureau has lost at least two staffers to the disease, though 1,984 have recovered from it.

Carvajal nevertheless pushed back throughout Wednesday’s hearing on demands for a blanket staff testing plan. In a separate interaction with Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the director said he could not force his employees to get tested for Covid-19 — even though the agency waives insurance copays for those tests.

“I understand civil liberties, civil rights the Constitution, but you’re talking about individuals coming into contact with incarcerated persons who can’t walk away, who can’t get out,” Jackson Lee said. “And that means they are endangering themselves, their families at home.”

Lawmakers also probed Donald Washington, director of the U.S. Marshals Service, on why his agency has not provided information related to Covid-19 infections of persons in its custody.

Jackson noted when individuals are transferred between Bureau of Prison facilities in the care of the U.S. Marshals service, there is no information on individual infection of those inmates, or even whether the Marshals Service follows a testing program similar to Bureau of Prisons protocols.

Washington said gathering data on Covid-19-affected individuals was difficult, due to the 63,000 inmates in the Marshals Service custody over 800 facilities. The agency has some data on hospitalized individuals and inmates who have tested positive but did not indicate what those populations were.

New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries complained about underutilization of compassionate releases under emergency provisions in the First Step Act — a law designed to make it easier for inmates to assimilate to communities after release.

Only about 2,000 motions of compassionate release had been granted by federal courts, Jeffries noted. While the Bureau of Prisons can also initiate those motions, the agency was responsible for approving only 0.1% of those releases during the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In other words, 10,929 requests out of 10,940 requests were rejected, does that sound right?” Jeffries said.

Carvajal said since compassionate-release motions deal with the reduction of sentences, and that the Bureau of Prison has been intentionally careful here. Given public safety considerations, Carvajal said, it is “not a process that should be rushed.

“There’s a 30-day window and then the inmate can go directly to a court,” Carvajal said. “That’s why the courts have released more. It’s a lengthy process; there’s a lot of vetting to go into that.” 

But Jeffries said Carvajal’s response missed the point of his observation.

“I think the issue is that you’ve had at least two dozen individuals who have died in prison waiting for a compassionate release request to even be reviewed, if not signed off on by the Bureau of Prisons,” Jeffries said. “That seems to be inconsistent with the presumption that we should be doing all that we can to alleviate the pain and suffering and death connected to Covid-19 in the tight quarters of the federal penitentiary.”

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