WASHINGTON – Michael Carvajal seemed optimistic as he highlighted the steps the Federal Bureau of Prisons has taken to protect inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The bureau was one of the first agencies to offer COVID testing and vaccinations.… Approximately 80% of our staff and 70% of our inmates have been fully vaccinated and we continue to increase those rates,” Carvajal, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told a Feb. 3 House Judiciary Committee hearing.
“The bureau has transferred more than 37,000 inmates to community custody, after review of medically vulnerable inmates based on assessments,” he added.
But lawmakers and other critics insist that federal prison inmates were less protected from COVID-19 than the general public, more died than has been made public, and incarcerated people remain exposed to greater health risks than the prisons bureau will acknowledge.
“There’ve been at least 300 people who have died while in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told Capital News Service. “Incarcerated people, generally, are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than people in the general population.”
According to the prison bureau’s COVID website, 4,672 federal inmates and 1,990 BOP staff have confirmed positive test results for the virus nationwide. The website said 285 inmates and seven staff members have died from COVID so far.
Of the 285 inmate deaths, 11 occurred while on home confinement, according to the bureau. The inmate totals listed do not include inmates participating in the Federal Location Monitoring program, inmates supervised under the United States Probation Office, or those being held in privately-managed prisons or state facilities or jails.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, asked Carvajal during the congressional hearing what to do about preventing deaths in federal prisons.
“We have been in lockstep with the CDC from day one,” Carvajal said. “That is why we appreciate the ability under the CARES Act to transfer people out. We were able to lower our population. We are following CDC guidance. We do everything in collaboration with them.”
While data on the medical isolation rate, facility vaccination rate, and community transmission rate are all available on the prison bureau’s website, advocates, including Kendrick and Joshua Manson, a researcher with the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project, argue that most of the information on how many people have been infected with, or died of, the virus is inaccurate.
“They’re not being fully transparent,” Manson told Capital News Service. “They’re sort of just asking the public to trust them when they’ve really given the public no reason to trust them. There have been enormous numbers of people who’ve been infected in the Bureau of Prisons’ custody…but we know that the actual number is considerably higher than that.”
When asked about criticisms of its data and policies, a prison bureau spokesperson referred CNS to the agency’s website.
Carvajal, a Trump administration appointee, announced his resignation in January. He is staying on until he is replaced.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, has been a vocal critic of Carvajal’s tenure.
“For years, the Bureau of Prisons has been plagued by corruption, chronic understaffing, and mismanagement,” the senator said in January. “In the nearly two years since Director Carvajal was handpicked by then-Attorney General Bill Barr, he has failed to address the mounting crises in our nation’s federal prison system, including failing to fully implement the landmark First Step Act. His resignation is an opportunity for new, reform-minded leadership at the Bureau of Prisons.”
In April 2021, Durbin noted that “at times, the infection rate for the federal prison population has been nearly six times higher than in the community at large. At that time, he said, 230 inmates had died of COVID – “nearly all of whom had preexisting conditions that made them particularly and obviously vulnerable.”
“Several were within months of being released,” Durbin said. “And 55 died after their request for compassionate release was denied or while their request was pending.”
Durbin and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have introduced legislation aimed at ensuring that the most vulnerable inmates, particularly older prisoners, can be eligible for compassionate release or moved to home confinement to complete their sentences.
“In the middle of a pandemic the federal government ought to be doing everything it can to protect the inmates in its care,” Grassley said.
Both Manson and Kendrick spotlighted what they said were inconsistencies in cumulative COVID-19 case numbers in the prison bureau’s records.
“One of the things that they do is the cumulative counts of COVID-19 infections sometimes goes down…BOP officials finally admitted that what they were doing was as people were getting discharged from BOP custody, they would then remove that person from the total count of infected people,” Kendrick said.
Additionally, Manson urged caution on trusting the prison bureau’s numbers on vaccinated individuals inside correctional facilities.
Manson said the bureau’s website has a category for “fully vaccinated” inmates, but that website does note that the numbers reported don’t include the number of people who have been given a booster.”
“Now, I don’t really think that you can call someone fully inoculated right now if they haven’t received the booster,” he said.
The prisons bureau also is not doing enough to ensure that its own employees are properly masked and vaccinated, according to critics and inmates’ family members.
Prison bureau employees who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated are required to comply with CDC and agency guidance, including, according to the agency, “wearing masks regardless of the transmission rate in a given area, physical distancing, regular testing and adhering to applicable travel restrictions.”
The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project also noted a dramatic uptick in the presence of COVID infections in December and January with the Omicron surge. For the first time, more than 10,000 active COVID cases were reported in January among the 150,000 inmates in the prison bureau’s 120 facilities, the project said.
The UCLA project also gives the Federal Bureau of Prisons an “F” for its data collection methods.
Neela, who asked that her last name not be used in order to protect the identity of her husband, who is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution El Reno in Oklahoma, told CNS prison guards were one of the reasons the virus spread and returned in that facility.
“I don’t think they’re doing their part as far as the guards are concerned because we don’t have contact visits right now, it’s all through like a plexiglass,” she said. “The only way these people are getting COVID is through guards.”
“And I’ve gotten in there and I’ve seen a guard could care less about COVID,” Neela said. “I don’t know how many guards are coming into work and have COVID. But I know every time I go, they’re not wearing their masks. Is that the reason? I don’t know. But, I don’t think that’s helping the situation.”
Kendrick said advocates have also been pushing for less overcrowding and better hygiene practices. She said cleanliness is not often given priority inside federal facilities.
“You’re having them sit in cells for two to four days at a time and then allowing them 20 minutes to call their loved ones, take a shower, and get on the email, do whatever, and of course, the priority for these guys is talking to their loved ones because they’re concerned,” Neela said.
“So now you’re cutting their time to clean themselves, and then you’re not giving them the necessary tools to do that,” she said. “I mean, how do you expect people not to get sick if you’re not giving them soap or hand sanitizer?”
Vaccine education has also been put on the back burner inside prisons, according to Neela. She revealed that people jailed at El Reno were encouraged to take vaccinations by offering an optimistic picture of what the facility would look like after the majority of the population was vaccinated.
“…They were kind of bribing the inmates, they weren’t really educating them on why. They just told them, ‘if we can get a facility to 98%, then we can go back to everything being open, not having constant lockdown’ and things of that nature,” she said. “I do have friends that have loved ones at other facilities, and I’ve heard the opposite. So I do think it depends on the facility, who’s running the facility.”
The Prison Policy Initiative has been one of the organizations pushing for more vaccine education inside federal prisons, such as bringing in family members and community leaders.
“If you consider that incarcerated people have a long history of insufficient medical treatment and even medical neglect and abuse at the hands of the very same people who are not trying to vaccinate them, you can understand why it’s important to bring in people…to help convince them to take the vaccine,” said Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative.
Bertram also suggested that compassionate release and home confinement during the pandemic will help slow the spread of COVID-19.
“A woman wrote into our website yesterday and told us that her husband was supposed to be released to home confinement, and checked off the boxes that the (prison bureau) had laid out for people to be released to home confinement,” Bertram said. “But, he was not actually released under that program, and he got sent to a halfway house and the halfway house is full of COVID.”
The Justice Department in December gave the Federal Bureau of Prisons the discretion to allow formerly incarcerated individuals to remain in home confinement even as the pandemic eases.
The action reverses a Trump administration policy that directed the bureau to return those who were allowed to remain in home confinement to correctional facilities if they still had time to serve.
This article was originally published on CNSmaryland.org.