U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand pressed the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for updates regarding the response and preparation at Federal Prison Facilities for the growing coronavirus pandemic. Prison facilities face unique public health challenges as inmates and staff are unable to follow social distancing and quarantine guidelines, and individuals in federal custody may also lack access to critical hygiene products and medical services to test for or treat COVID-19.
“Federal inmates and BOP staff are incredibly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 and immediate steps must be taken to protect these populations from this dangerous disease,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I urge the DOJ and BOP to ensure that all federal prison facilities are taking steps to protect public health and reduce the number of inmates and staff potentially spreading coronavirus amongst themselves and the broader public.”
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Michael Carvajal, Senator Gillibrand called on the DOJ and BOP to provide clear guidance on how BOP facilities can protect staff and inmates from the spread of coronavirus. The letter also insists on guidance to US Attorney’s Offices around the country to reduce the number of people entering federal detention by prioritizing efforts to pursue probation, supervised release, and pretrial release for current inmates where appropriate; and guidance to use existing measures to release inmates who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
As COVID-19 spreads across the country and reports emerge that inmates and staff at BOP facilities have already tested positive, advocates are concerned about the lack of action to protect the public health of prison populations. Due to confined spaces, overcrowding, and lack of hygiene and sanitary products, prison facilities have the ability to act as COVID-19 incubators amongst inmates and staff.
Full text of the letter can be found here and below.
April 1, 2020
The Honorable William P. Barr Attorney General
US Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20530
Director Michael Carvajal
Federal Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street NW
Washington, DC 20534
Dear Attorney General Barr and Director Carvajal,
I write today to express concern about the impact of the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19 or the virus) on the conditions at Federal Prison Facilities. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect communities across the country, it is imperative that Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP or the Bureau) provide guidance to BOP facilities, the US Marshals Service (USMS), and US Attorney’s Offices nationwide to protect staff and individuals held in Federal custody from the virus.
As you are well aware, the risk of community spread poses a critical and unique threat to BOP facilities across the nation, where inmates and BOP staff are unable to partake in the social distancing and quarantine recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has also issued guidance indicating that individuals over the age of 60, the immune-compromised, and those with preexisting chronic health conditions, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and HIV, are more susceptible to COVID-19 and if they contract the virus, are more likely to experience severe illness and death.
With more than 175,000 incarcerated men and women in federal facilities and an additional 75,000 who are incarcerated awaiting trial, it is imperative that DOJ and the Bureau take steps to ensure that these inmates, BOP staff, and US Marshals are protected against the spread of the virus. I urge you to ensure that all federal facilities are ensuring that inmates have free and continued access to hygienic products including soap, water, and toilet paper. BOP must also suspend or eliminate co-pays for medical services related to COVID-19 testing or treatment, and should increase free access to email, telephone calls, and video conferencing calls for inmates for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak. For BOP and US Marshal staff, the Department must ensure access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and training for best practices to avoid spread of the contagion.
The DOJ must also issue guidance to US Attorney’s Offices around the country to urge them to take immediate steps to reduce the number of people entering federal detention, as well as prioritize efforts to pursue probation, supervised release and pretrial release for current inmates where appropriate. Moreover, DOJ and BOP must use existing authorities to release inmates who meet the CDC’s vulnerable to COVID-19 criteria. These authorities include expanding access to the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program, which allows for early transfer of eligible elderly or terminally ill patients to home confinement; BOP’s powers under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A) to reduce an inmate’s term of imprisonment for “extraordinary and compelling reasons”; and under authorities provided by the First Step Act to transfer lower-risk inmates to home confinement where practicable.
The Department must take immediate steps to ensure that vulnerable Federal inmates and BOP staff are protected from COVID-19. To that end, I urge you to provide immediate guidance to BOP facilities, the USMS, and US Attorney’s Offices nationwide to mitigate and respond to the continued spread of the virus. Thank you for your consideration of this request.