Federal prison guards warn that a coronavirus outbreak is looming and could be catastrophic, causing “mass chaos” in a correctional system responsible for more than 175,000 inmates across the United States.
VICE News spoke with correctional officers at multiple Bureau of Prisons facilities who described a system that is underprepared for the crisis and already on the brink of disaster. The BOP has taken some initial steps to limit the spread of the virus, including restricting inmate transfers, but there are gaping loopholes in the policy that still allow prisoners to be moved from one facility to another with minimal precautions.
So far, there are only four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in BOP facilities, including a case first reported Monday by VICE News of an inmate at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan, a federal jail that has housed high-profile inmates such as Jeffrey Epstein and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. An inmate at another federal jail in Brooklyn tested positive over the weekend, and there are two more cases at a prison in Oakdale, Louisiana. Three BOP staff members have tested positive at facilities in Texas, Missouri, and Kansas.
But testing has been extremely limited, and guards say there are dozens of inmates showing symptoms who are being held in isolation, sometimes in cells that are typically used for solitary confinement. Protective equipment is already in short supply, and prison staffers, who are not trained to deal with a pandemic, worry that the virus will soon begin spreading like wildfire.
“It would be mass chaos,” said Ray Coleman, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1570, the union that represents guards and staff at FCI Tallahassee. “We’re just not prepared to handle something of that nature. Not to even look at the security aspect of trying to deal with staffing shortages — it could be a recipe for disaster.”
The coronavirus has already wreaked havoc in prisons in other countries, with deadly riots erupting in Italy and Colombia over poor conditions and frustration with authorities. The situation is not quite so dire in the U.S., but Coleman and other guards said conditions have the potential to deteriorate quickly unless drastic action is taken soon.
A BOP spokesperson acknowledged an inquiry from VICE News, but did not immediately respond to questions about the agency’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has already killed nearly 600 people and sickened at least 46,500 others around the U.S.
The BOPs “COVID-19 Action Plan” involves suspending all inmate visits for at least 30 days, limiting access by volunteers and other outside personnel, and implementing “enhanced health screening” of staff members in areas with “sustained community transmission.” The BOP has also officially halted movement of inmates between facilities, but the policy allows for “limited exceptions” and inmates are still being shipped around the country.
“We’re just not prepared to handle something of that nature.”
Coleman said his low-security facility in Tallahassee, which houses around 830 people, was due to receive a busload of 28 new prisoners on Tuesday. He said two inmates already in the prison displayed symptoms of COVID-19, but one had their fever go away and was not tested, and the other was transferred elsewhere.
“We don’t have the resources to keep up,” Coleman said. “They say ‘Send it out to the local health department,’ but the local health department is already backed up. They can’t even maintain the needs of the public. We haven’t sent out any test swabs or anything. We pray it’s not here, but to be honest nobody really knows.”
The BOP’s 30-day freeze on inmate transfers carves out numerous exceptions, including for medical treatment, releases, court proceedings, and other “case-by-case” situations. The major hub for prisoner transport is the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, and a source there who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that, as of Monday afternoon, “we’re still getting in planes full of people from different areas.” According to that person, until recently inmates were not having their temperatures taken until they arrived in Oklahoma City, despite a BOP policy that required a screening for COVID-19 prior to being moved.
The pace of new arrivals in Oklahoma City has slowed from 30-40 per day to 10-20, the person said, but prisoners are still seated in close proximity to each other on transport aircraft. There are around 1,400 in-transit inmates at any given time in Oklahoma City, meaning an outbreak there could quickly spread across the entire federal system. Around seven people there are in isolation after showing COVID-19 symptoms. New arrivals have their temperatures checked, and staff are supposed to remain home if they feel sick.
Guards across the system said they are being ordered to use sick leave if they’re unwell, which is limited and thus incentivizes working through illnesses. Staff with mild symptoms, such as a runny nose, now require work approval from agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., but the source in Oklahoma City said nobody seems to stay away for long. “It’s a rubber stamp,” they said. “They give it a day and say the guy can come into work.”
The federal prison system lost 12% of its workforce over a two-year period from 2016 to 2018, partly due to a hiring freeze ordered by President Donald Trump. Understaffing remains a major concern. Union officials said they expect the BOP to soon order “emergency rosters,” which would extend the work shifts from 8 to 12 hours. Staffing shortages have already led to increased “augmentation,” where medical personnel and others are forced to work as guards.
Federal prisoners who spoke to VICE in mid-March described a range of responses that seemed to vary across facilities, with some saying they had access to hand sanitizer and others reporting little in the way of additional precautions. When a VICE reporter followed up with those sources recently, he was told that prisoners were ordered to stop speaking with journalists about coronavirus.
Much of the focus in New York City has been on the Rikers Island jail complex, which holds more than 5,000 people and where conditions are reportedly grim and getting worse. As of Monday morning, 39 inmates and 21 staff members at Rikers had tested positive for COVID-19.
The two main federal jails in New York, which have a combined capacity of around 2,300, have only recorded two COVID-19 cases — one each at the facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn. But there are concerns that the true extent may be obscured by lack of testing.
The man who tested positive for COVID-19 Monday at the MCC in Manhattan was hospitalized after reporting a high fever, chills, and body aches, according to a memo from Warden M. Licon-Vitale to jail staff obtained by VICE News. The warden said the prisoner was to be discharged from the hospital Monday evening and returned to the jail, where he would be kept in isolation. Other inmates who were exposed to the sick man were to be quarantined.
“The bottom line is people’s lives are in danger here.”
Another memo sent from the MCC warden to staff on March 19 and obtained by VICE News said the facility has “an obligation” to receive “symptomatic inmates with exposure risk factors,” but such prisoners would be quarantined in the jail’s Special Housing Unit. Sick prisoners who cannot be hospitalized are supposed to be isolated, the memo said, with the instruction that “Inmate must have mask placed on him to prevent additional exposures.”
Tyrone Covington, president of Union Local 3148, which represents guards and staff at the MCC, said employees are now required to undergo regular temperature checks, but prisoners are not having temperatures monitored and there aren’t enough masks to go around.
“There’s no temperature checking the inmates,” Covington said. “When staff enters the facility every day we are tested, we have our temperatures checked. There hasn’t been one inmate who’s had his temperature checked in these facilities. The bottom line is people’s lives are in danger here. The BOP is dragging its feet on this issue.”
Covington called for the BOP to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to convert a building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to house sick prisoners. He also wants the MCC, which mainly houses pre-trial detainees, to stop accepting new prisoners unless absolutely necessary.
“For crying out loud, we have inmates coming in to self-surrender who have been home for three months,” Covington said. “I don't know why they can’t stay home for another three months until this situation is under control.”
The BOP’s tepid response to the coronavirus outbreak has drawn ire from federal lawmakers. Republican Rep. Fred Keller of Pennsylvania said Monday that the continued transfers of prisoners between facilities “goes against everything we’ve been doing to flatten the curve.” A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, including Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley, also sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and BOP Director Michael Carvajal pressing them to transfer elderly and nonviolent terminally ill people to home confinement.
Coleman, the guard in Tallahassee, noted that the federal prison population includes many people who are at high risk of dying from COVID-19, including more than 35,000 inmates over age 50. He said his facility is short-staffed with medical personnel, including several nurse positions that remain unfilled.
“People don’t realize the amount of sickness and disease already in prisons,” he said. “We got inmates who are 80 or 90 years old. There’s a lot of ailments — all these groups that are going to be more at-risk than others. There’s a lot of anxiety among staff too, we have guys with auto-immune issues. One staff member already told me, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can deal with this, I have to take care of my family, I have to watch my kids.’”
Cover: The Metropolitan Correctional Center, which is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, stands in lower Manhattan on November 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)