Federal prison workers say conflicting orders on coronavirus response is putting lives at risk

By Cassidy McDonald

/ CBS News

Federal prison employees say their lives are in danger after a series of bungled instructions and widespread supply shortages amid the coronavirus outbreak. The Bureau of Prisons on Thursday reported that two staff members were presumed positive for COVID-19, marking the first possible cases in the federal prison system.

"The agency is in chaos," said Joe Rojas, regional vice president of the Council of Prison Locals, the labor union that represents federal corrections officers. "We are just scrambling to get things in order."

One of the BOP staff members who is presumed positive worked at a facility in New Hampshire and may have been in contact with inmates, a BOP official told CBS News.

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At the Tallahassee Federal Correctional Institution, prison employees told CBS News the officers charged with moving prisoners do not have access to protective gear. Employees said the facility has 60 masks to be shared among 200 employees, no soap in multiple staff restrooms, a lack of hand sanitizer and a supply of gloves that may only last through next week. Workers said they planned to reuse the disposable masks.

"Our supply is very limited," said Kristan Morgan, vice president of AFGE Local 1570. "It's kind of like survival of the fittest at this point."

Morgan spent Tuesday afternoon admitting a busload of 12 new inmates from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, all of whom showed high fevers. On Wednesday, the facility took in 14 new inmates and anticipated four more would arrive Thursday. The facility's doctor is out sick, and their two nurses and one nurse practitioner are working around the clock.

FCI Tallahassee
This combination image shows empty supplies at FCI Tallahassee. Handout

Making matters worse are the conflicting orders coming from the federal government. Despite a BOP directive to cease inmate transfers between facilities, Tallahassee continues to receive busloads of new prisoners each day, employees say.

Across the facility, hand sanitizer dispensers sit empty, and staff have started to call in sick in order to avoid exposure. "They feel really betrayed," said Ray Coleman, president of AFGE Local 1570. "We have a couple correction officers with lupus. We have a couple that are pregnant—things that already make their immune system compromised, so to not be taking this seriously could be detrimental."

In New York City's Metropolitan Correctional Center, the facility where Jeffrey Epstein died, employees say operations have not changed despite the increased risk of contracting the virus. Employees, who spoke with CBS News anonymously for fear of professional reprisal, say the virus has exacerbated an existing staffing shortage and estimated the facility is operating with less than half its usual number of correctional officers.

Despite the lack of staff, the facility continues to book new inmates. One employee said that the specialized housing unit, or SHU — an area where other facilities are housing quarantined inmates — was nearly at capacity. "There's no room in SHU," the employee said. "If one inmate is contaminated there, there's nothing in place… Once that whole thing spreads, no staff is going to come into work."

Another employee urged courts to cease inmate visits or set up video hearings instead. Every time an inmate visits court, the employee said, officers conduct multiple body searches. "If it's only one inmate, he comes into contact with five other law enforcement officers before he goes to court, plus the five or ten officers who go to court, plus the court personnel."

"No one wants to go and get infected and then come home and infect their children," the employee said. "The agency, in my opinion, is not doing enough to protect us when we run into these problems."

The BOP declined to provide an interview to CBS News, but a bureau spokesperson said the agency was currently updating its published guidance on inmate movement to provide further clarification.

The spokesperson said that cleaning, sanitation and medical supplies at federal prison facilities had been inventoried as part of the bureau's pandemic influenza contingency plan. "An ample amount of supply is on hand and ready to be distributed or moved to any facility as deemed necessary," the spokesperson said. "The Bureau of Prisons is prepared to address any supply concerns if necessary."

Additional reporting by Clare Hymes.

Update: The Bureau of Prisons clarified on Thursday that the two staff members are presumed positive for COVID-19, meaning test results are not back yet but they are believed to have the virus based on other variables.

First published on March 18, 2020 / 6:47 PM

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