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How Federal Prisons Became Coronavirus Death Traps

Keri Blakinger and Keegan Hamilton - The Marshall Project: June 18, 2020

He sounded like he was dying.

That was Sonia Rodriguez’s first thought when her fiancé called her from federal prison near Cleveland. The gravelly voice she had known since high school had turned into a wheeze. He could barely finish a sentence without pausing to catch his breath. He said he was coughing up blood.

Rodriguez, a 49-year-old who handles accounting at a bakery, knew she was taking on a lot when she reconnected with JJ—officially Johnny Joe Desilva Jr.—while he was serving time. She knew his past involvement in gangs and drug trafficking would make the road to married life long.

But now she feared she would lose her strong fiancé to sickness. To COVID-19. While he was in the federal government’s care.

“He asked if I knew how much he loved me,” she said, crying as she remembered. “I thought I would get a call from him the next day.”

She didn’t. It was as if he had vanished.

The coronavirus had arrived at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution, where, as one prisoner put it, there were suddenly “people walking around looking like the living dead.”

With over 163,000 people in custody, the federal Bureau of Prisons is America’s largest jailer. The BOP touts its prisons as “safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure.” But what happened at Elkton is typical in many ways of the grim conditions and bungled responses at federal lockups across the country. The agency confirms active cases at 69 of its 122 prisons. As of Wednesday, it reported at least 6,245 prisoners and 673 staff infected over the course of the pandemic at its prisons and halfway houses.

And the truth is much worse than the BOP’s official numbers indicate.

VICE News and The Marshall Project spoke with more than 85 federal prisoners or their family members, and 25 staff members at prisons with coronavirus outbreaks. We obtained dozens of internal BOP memos, emails, and other documents, and reviewed images and videos recorded on contraband cell phones.

We found that the BOP was unprepared for the pandemic and slow to respond, and that top officials even took measures that contributed to the spread of the virus.

The official death toll stands at 86, including one staff member. Our reporting on the BOP’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak shows:

  • Staff ignored or minimized prisoners’ COVID-19 symptoms, and mixed the sick and healthy together in haphazard quarantines.

  • Thousands of prisoners were shipped around the country in February and early March, taking the virus with them, according to BOP records obtained by VICE News and The Marshall Project.

  • Correctional officers and other staff felt pressured to work even after being exposed to sick prisoners.

  • The BOP failed to follow its own pandemic response plan, which called for spacing out prisoners. Photos and videos show sick men in bunk beds just two feet apart.

  • Federal officials have allegedly tried to conceal the extent of the outbreak by limiting testing—so that they didn’t have to report positive cases—and refusing to recognize one staff death. As of Tuesday, they had completed testing on less than 13 percent of prisoners in BOP-run facilities.

  • Prisoners reported being quarantined in filthy buildings that had been vacant for years or in tents that flooded during rainstorms. Some described listening to their friends dying around them.

BOP Director Michael Carvajal declined an interview request from VICE News and The Marshall Project. Elkton’s warden referred us to the BOP main office. A spokesperson sent a statement in response to a detailed list of questions, declining to comment on numerous allegations involving specific prisoners, and maintaining that the agency’s response to the pandemic was carefully planned and coordinated, and that it took an array of precautions to contain the outbreak.

“We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families, and the communities we live and work in,” the statement said. “It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities.”

Attorney General William Barr has twice issued orders to release medically vulnerable prisoners or move them to home confinement, but the Justice Department has nonetheless fought to keep the vast majority of them incarcerated. Less than 3 percent of federal prisoners have been sent to home confinement, and some of them—including former Trump allies Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen—didn’t even meet the official criteria to qualify.

The BOP’s handling of the crisis under Barr and Carvajal has drawn scrutiny from Congress, with lawmakers questioning how the outbreak spiraled out of control and how the agency spent $100 million allotted to it for pandemic response. The inspector general for the Justice Department is investigating.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, slammed the Justice Department in a recent committee hearing, saying, “At best, it has slow-walked its response to COVID-19. At worst, they have been derelict in their duty to prevent deaths in the facilities that they operate.”

But the most furious criticism has come from the BOP’s rank and file. The American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, which represents over 30,000 federal prison workers, has lambasted Carvajal and the BOP leadership during the pandemic.

“They're making it worse,” said Joe Rojas, the union’s Southeast regional vice president. “They're making the virus explode instead of containing it.”

The BOP counts one correctional officer’s death from COVID-19. But the parents of another staffer say the agency is refusing to acknowledge that the virus also caused their daughter’s death. The union has sued for hazard pay and filed at least two workplace safety complaints alleging that staff were exposed to infection without being given protective gear.

Prisoners have filed at least 11 class-action lawsuits against Carvajal and wardens to try to compel releases and improve conditions. At Elkton, a federal judge ordered officials to move or release hundreds of medically vulnerable prisoners. That would not only protect those who got out but also allow better social distancing for those who remain behind bars. Two men involved in the case died from COVID-19 while the government appealed.

For many during the pandemic, the only way out of federal prison has been in an ambulance.

To read the full report, click here.

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