Federal Defenders call on AG William Barr to act on release of federal inmates to address growing concern for elderly and those with compromised health conditions who will face the growing COVID-19 outbreak in prisons.
The Federal Public & Community Defenders, Legislative Committee sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr to act on releasing federal inmates who are elderly and those with compromised medical conditions that may have an adverse, deadly, reaction to COVID-19.
Authored by David Patton and Jon Sands, the letter stated that the Department of Justice has failed to respond appropriately to the “global pandemic,’ and criticized an earlier memorandum by Barr that many inmates will be safer in BOP facilities.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has not initiated an mass-release protocol since it first started tracking COVID-19. The BOP’s director, Michael Carvajal, released as statement touting the BOP’s actions taken to reduce contagion of the disease in prison.
The BOP has thus far been fortunate in that our rate of COVID-19 infection is remarkably low. As of March 26, out of over 146,000 inmates in our custody, ten inmates have tested positive. Out of over 36,000 staff, eight staff have tested positive. We believe that the low number of cases to this point, in a system this large, is a testament to our effective planning and execution to-date.
Since Carvajal’s statement, three inmates have died of COVID-19 and there are 57 positive tests (as of April 1, 2020). News outlets have widely reported that this figure is underreporting the extent of the outbreak. Carvajal’s latest action to address the virus outbreak is called “Phase V,” which is a lockdown of inmates confining them to their cells (dorms). The Federal Defenders called that action “certain to fail.”
Through various contacts in prison, this Phase V, which comes on the heels of cancellation of social visits (March 13, 2020), does nothing more than crowd inmates together in open living quarters that are indicative of minimum and low security facilities. As one inmate told me, “Most phones and email terminals are in common areas that are now off-limits. Now, we will all stand in line waiting on our turn to talk on the phone.” When I asked if there were wipes or sanitizer to clean the phone and terminals in between inmate use the person told me, “No. We use the phone and pass it to the next person.”
The letter noted that the BOP is destined to have the same tragic results of other prison systems who failed to implement any proactive practices to reduce spread. Rikers Island’s, a large prison near New York City, slow response to the spread of COVID-19 suffers an infection rate that is seven times higher than the rest of New York City and is seventy-five times higher than the United States. The Cook County jail in Chicago went from two positive COVID-19 cases to 101 confirmed cases in a week.
Jack Donson, who worked in the BOP for over 23 years, told me in an interview that he hoped the BOP is working behind the scenes to identify people who can be released. “The BOP has an extensive databased called SENTRY, that can profile every inmate in a federal facility,” Donson said, “in seconds, someone in the BOP could create a list of inmates that meet a certain profile.” Donson said that there are a number of inmates who are eligible to home detention under older policy that allowed someone to serve their final 10% of their sentence on home detention. Donson said of those who fit that profile, “those people should go home now because they should have been home anyway.”
Donson also noted that the government, particularly the BOP, doesn’t react quickly. “The First Step Act was signed by President Trump in December 2018,” Donson said, “the BOP is just now implementing that program.”