TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) - The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will soon reinstate visitation for federal inmates. The BOP stopped offering the benefit in March when it became clear COVID-19 was a serious issue. The news of visitation resuming is welcome to inmates and their families but a union leader, representing employees in Terre Haute, says the decision is a misstep.
There has been a significant increase in COVID-19 cases at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute over the past week and a half. The weekend of August 22nd, the BOP reported 12 current inmate cases at the United States Penitentiary (USP) and fewer at the Federal Correctional Institute (FCI). As of September 3rd, there are 69 current inmate cases at Terre Haute USP. 11 inmates and 2 employees have recovered. 1 inmate died earlier this year. There are 50 current inmate cases at Terre Haute FCI and 2 current employee cases. 1 inmate and 5 employees have recovered.
Even though visitation is resuming, those procedures will be much different. According to a BOP memorandum dated August 31st, social visiting will resume no later than October 3rd. It's up to wardens to come up with a plan for each facility that is aligned with procedures set forth by the BOP. Wardens must submit their plans for approval by September 18th.
Visits will be non-contact. According to the BOP, this means barriers will have to be installed or social distancing of 6 feet enforced. The number of people allowed to visit at once will depend on the size of the room. The frequency of visits will also vary but the BOP says any plan should "ensure all inmates have an opportunity to visit at least twice a month."
It will also be up to wardens to figure out a plan for cleaning between visits and how to safely get visitors in and out while maintaining physical distancing. Visitors will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and must come with a proper face covering. Inmates in isolation or quarantine will not see visitors.
A union leader representing employees at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute says resuming inmate visitation at this time is a mistake. AFGE Local 720 First Vice President Vic Rubinacci calls the move concerning and says, "We believe this is a completely poor decision on behalf of the BOP and it will only fuel the fire to say, exposing staff and inmates to visitors from all over the nation."
Prior to the announcement visitation would be resuming, we asked the BOP what was being offered to inmates so they could communicate with their families. A spokesperson sent us this response: "In order to compensate for the original suspension and absence of in-person visits, we increased monthly telephone minutes for all inmates from 300 to 500 minutes in recognition of how important it is for families to stay in touch during this time. Telephone calls are free to inmates for the duration of this emergency (collect calls will still be charged to the receiving phone number)."
The BOP also confirmed phone access at one of the Terre Haute facilities had been restricted.
"Please note, while inmate use of telephone stations at FCI Terre Haute was briefly restricted. This restriction was lifted on, September 1, 2020. This action was taken to prevent the transmission of the virus by touching keyboards and phone handsets. The highest priority remains ensuring the safety of the inmates and staff while decreasing the spread of the COVID-19 virus."
According to the BOP memorandum, visiting schedules will have to be made public on the BOP's website. It remains unclear at this time what schedules will look like for the Terre Haute facilities.