TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) – Federal prison inmates say they’re enduring unnatural punishment as coronavirus ravages communities around the globe. The virus is already behind Terre Haute prison walls and many inmates fear they may suffer a sentence greater than any crime they committed.
"It’s just going to spread around there like wildfire.” – Federal prison inmate
The federal prison system has been plagued by sickness. Some facilities have seen hundreds of COVID-19 cases. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is reporting 2,134 open inmate cases and 190 staff cases. To date, 79 federal prison inmates have died. One employee has also died.
Terre Haute has not been immune to the virus. According to the BOP, five inmates have tested positive for the virus and one inmate has died. The first case was reported May 17th and the first death was reported just a week later.
"It’s not fancy or anything. It’s prison. I get that, you know, but when you have a highly contagious virus floating around, that’s a disaster.” – Federal prison inmate
Prison facilities in Terre Haute operate like a city within a city. Perhaps best known for federal death row, there is more than a death chamber located off Prairieton Road. The Terre Haute Correctional Complex, or FCC Terre Haute, is a high-security facility. It houses more than 1,300 male inmates. Next door is the Federal Correctional Institution, or FCI Terre Haute. It’s a medium-security prison and houses more than 1,200 male inmates. FCI Terre Haute also includes a minimum security satellite camp.
Several federal prison inmates serving time in Terre Haute contacted News 10 with their concerns. One man, recently released to home confinement, agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity. We are calling him Mike for the purposes of this story. We confirmed Mike is an inmate through the BOP and Department of Justice. Mike had been serving time in the minimum security camp with other non-violent, white-collar criminals.
Mike says, “They weren’t evil people… they just did things that were improper.”
The Terre Haute prison facility is a care level three. That means many of the inmates suffer from serious, chronic conditions. Inside the prison camp, Mike says social distancing is not possible. Inmates are close enough to reach out and touch on a regular basis.
"It puts me right up in the top percentage of people that die from COVID-19."
Inmates are still being moved in and out of the facility. Union leaders, representing the officers working inside the Terre Haute facilities, raised concerns about that fact back in March. At that time, they also said there were only four COVID-19 test kits for nearly 3,000 inmates.
During our March 2020 interview AFGE Local 720 President Kenny Swick said, "It's very confined spaces, very confined areas and when we get sickness that comes in, it goes through this place like wildfire."
We contacted the BOP several times to learn more about prison conditions. The bureau response has been prisons are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. As for testing, the BOP says some prisons may be "inclined to forgo routine testing in order to manage limited testing resources."
Mike says, "If you don't test, you don't know. You're going to be the Typhoid Mary walking around, spreading the germs to everyone."
Mike says testing is just part of the problem. He says regular cleaning and disinfecting is the other half. Even though the BOP says it is following CDC guidelines, Mike says that translates to only two bleach disinfecting wipes a week.
"It's just a joke. It's just a way to say yeah, we've provided the inmates with sanitation wipes."
Other inmates are expressing the same concerns about the lack of testing and resources. In a letter to News 10, an inmate still serving time inside the prison describes a lack of access to hand sanitizer, staff not wearing masks or gloves, and people in close proximity during inmate counts.
Mike says, "A lot of it's top-down. You know, if the top is not serious about actually preventing the spread of this, it's just not going to happen on the inmate and correctional officer level down where the rubber meets the road."
Also in the letter, the inmate says others with COVID-19 symptoms cannot get tested. He ends his letter saying "I was sentenced to prison for committing a crime... But I was not given a death sentence."
As for Mike, he's happy to be home but is worried about the men, just like him, still waiting in prison.
"Those people are going to have an extremely hard time surviving if the virus gets in."
Inmates and their families are calling on BOP, DOJ, and other leaders to make sure non-violent inmates are allowed to serve out their sentences on home confinement as outlined by Attorney General William Barr's order he issued in March.
We asked Senator Mike Braun about the concerns regarding safety and inmate efforts to be released to home confinement.
Senator Braun says, “My office has been made aware of this situation and we are working with the proper federal agencies on a solution that keeps our correctional workers and inmates safe.”