“It’s horrible,” said Anthony Koeppel, a local official with the staff union at Pollock. “It’s putting staff at risk, it’s putting inmates at risk, and it’s putting the community at risk. We’re talking about lives here. This is an extremely dangerous situation.”The Marshals say they aren’t required to do any testing because “an agreement was made” that the Bureau of Prisons would handle tests and quarantines once prisoners are transferred into its lock-ups. The BOP did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Justice Department, which oversees both agencies, said they “have taken, and will continue to take, aggressive steps to protect the safety and security of all staff, inmates, visitors, and members of the public.”Transferring prisoners who turn out to be sick has been a problem at prisons across the country. In California, the San Quentin State Prison went from zero coronavirus infections in late May to more than 2,200 confirmed cases and 26 deaths in early August after prisoners were moved in from a known hotspot without being tested.Staff and prisoners have blamed transfers for helping the coronavirus wreak havoc across the Bureau of Prisons, killing 111 prisoners and at least one staff member, and infecting over 10,000 prisoners and 1,200 workers in America’s largest network of prisons and jails. The agency officially halted most movement of prisoners in March in an effort to limit the spread of the virus; when it does transfer prisoners itself, it requires them to undergo coronavirus testing and a 14-day quarantine before and after being moved.
“It’s putting the community at risk. We’re talking about lives here. This is an extremely dangerous situation.”
‘The sickest of the sick’
“We don’t know who is positive until they drop them at our front door,” Morgan said in a phone interview. “It’s only a matter of time before the entire detention center is full of COVID.”Phillip Randle, president of the staff union at the federal jail in Houston, said all of the positives in his facility — five total, as of early August — came from a privately run jail called the Joe Corley Detention Facility, in neighboring Montgomery County.Joe Corley is operated by The GEO Group and also houses detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Randle said the private jailer claims to conduct testing, but that hasn’t stopped infected prisoners from being moved. “We don’t trust that they’re telling the truth, so we have to test them again,” Randle said. “They’ll send us the sickest of the sick.”A GEO Group spokesperson referred questions to the U.S. Marshals Service and ICE, saying decisions about transfers “are made exclusively by the federal government.”Several BOP workers warned that outbreaks would not be contained to prisons because those who are exposed may unknowingly bring the virus home to their families or spread it into their communities. While federal prisoners are supposed to be tested and quarantined before they’re released, the BOP doesn’t provide testing for staff, so any workers who fear exposure have to go through their insurance company, with the requisite copay, to get tested. And that irks prison employees.“I feel less important than the inmates,” one said. “They have more testing than we do.”Cover: Collage by Hunter French | Images via Shutterstock and Justice.gov
“We don’t know who is positive until they drop them at our front door.”