Union reps raise concerns about safety inside federal prison amid outbreak

Union leaders say they have serious concerns about the safety of law enforcement officers working at the Federal Correction Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana as the coronavirus permeates the nation.

Posted: Mar 26, 2020 6:56 PM
Updated: Mar 27, 2020 10:32 AM

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) – Union leaders say they have serious concerns about the safety of law enforcement officers working at the Federal Correction Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana as the coronavirus permeates the nation.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) oversees 122 facilities across the country including the Terre Haute complex. The agency recently implemented new rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but union leaders say the changes do not go far enough.

Full response from the Bureau of Prisons

"In response to COVID-19, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has instituted a comprehensive management approach that includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures. The BOP implemented its approved Pandemic Influenza contingency plan. The BOP has been coordinating its COVID-19 efforts, since January 2020, using subject-matter experts both internal and external to the agency, including guidance and directives from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Office of the Vice President.

Using the Incident Command System (ICS) framework, the BOP has developed and implemented an incident action plan that addresses our Continuity of Operations Program (COOP), Information Technology (IT) readiness, supply management, inmate movement, inmate visitation, and official staff travel, as well as other important aspects. The BOP's Central Office and Regional Offices as well as the National Institute of Corrections are coordinating planning and oversight with state and local prisons and jails.

In order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the BOP will move inmates under the current guidance as found on our “BOP Implementing Modified Operations” page on our public website here https://www.bop.gov/coronavirus/covid19_status.jsp. The guidance will be reevaluated and updated as needed, so please continue to check our public website.

This suspension of movement, however, does not mean the BOP has ceased all inmate movements because the federal judicial system as well as state courts continue to process criminal cases. To be clear, BOP has no authority to refuse inmates brought to us by the USMS.

These movement exceptions may include, but are not limited to, transfers related to forensic studies, writs, Interstate Agreements on Detainers (IAD), medical or mental health reasons (including local medical trips), and RRC placements. To be clear, the BOP may need to move inmates to better manage the detention bedspace as well as assure that administrative facilities do not become overcrowded beyond available resources.

The BOP has also instituted a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all new inmates entering the BOP from outside a BOP facility. The BOP is actively working with the US Marshals Service, the federal courts, and State and local correctional institutions to mitigate the risk of exposure in pre-trial detention and jail facilities and to maximize the safe transfer of inmates into BOP custody. The BOP is also working with the courts and the US Marshals Service to reduce transmission risks from movement for court proceedings, with options such as the use of video conferencing.

All cleaning, sanitation, and medical supplies have been inventoried at the BOP's facilities, including FCC Terre Haute, and an ample supply is on hand and ready to be distributed or moved to any facility as deemed necessary. The BOP is also procuring additional supplies, in case this event is protracted. As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve, the BOP updates and refines its recommendations based on CDC guidance, and protocols, and will continue to provide helpful information to staff, inmates and federal, state and local partners. The BOP has had no problems accessing tests through local health departments.

Guidance as to where and when Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as masks should be worn have been provided to all sites, is consistent with CDC guidance, and depends on several factors, including whether or not an institution has an active case and each employee’s job description. As noted by the CDC’s and OSHA guidance, there are several types of respiratory masks as well as face masks. Certain masks are appropriate and effective in certain scenarios and not in others. Some scenarios would require an employee to wear a mask and others would not. Guidance on what types of PPE are necessary and under what circumstances is available here: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/index.html.

Please reference the attached statement from the Council of Prison locals, which in part lauds the BOP’s actions, saying they were "swift, decisive, and unprecedented actions taken to combat the COVID-19 virus and its ominous threat that it poses to our nation's federal prisons." "These extensive measures will help ensure the safety and security of our facilities while protecting our federal law enforcement officers that walk the toughest neighborhoods in America." The BOP appreciates the Union's cooperation and assistance as we do everything we can to assure the safety and security of our staff and inmates.

For more information about COVID-19, to include the BOP's COVID-19 Action Plan and the number of positive staff and inmate COVID-19 cases, please visit the BOP's Coronavirus resource page on our public website, https://www.bop.gov/coronavirus/index.jsp. Due to the rapidly evolving nature of this public health crisis, the BOP will update this dashboard daily at 3:00 p.m. E.S.T. based on the most recently available data from across the agency as reported by the BOP's Office of Occupational Health and Safety."

Nearly 3,000 inmates call the Federal Correction Complex home. It’s also the location of the nation’s only federal death row.

AFGE Local 720 represents the law enforcement officers working at the complex. Union leaders acknowledge the BOP has scaled back inmate transfers but say inmates are still coming in and out of the facility unnecessarily and it’s putting employees and the public at risk.

AFGE Local 720 President Kenny Swick says, "It's very confined spaces, very confined areas and when we get sickness that comes in, it goes through that place like wildfire."

Swick says inmates are still being flown and bussed in from coronavirus "hot spots" like New York and Chicago. According to the BOP, these inmates are screened prior to movement and inmates are put into isolation if they are showing COVID-19 symptoms. Union leaders argue the transfers are simply not necessary right now and they put employees and the community at greater risk.

Union treasurer Steve Markle says inmates are still leaving the compound for court appearances and non-emergency doctor visits. In just fifteen minutes our cameras captured video of three inmate transfers.

"If we as non-institutionalized individuals are expected not to go to the doctor right now we shouldn't be taking inmates from inside the institution out to the community unless it’s an emergency situation."

Employees are also being screened as they come into work. According to union leaders, they stop at a tent to take their temperature. If it's over 100.4 °F they go home but that is not always happening. Union Vice President Victor Rubinacci says employees have returned to work in just a few days.

Meanwhile, Rubinacci says there is an adequate supply of personal protective equipment and N95 masks but union leadership has been fighting the agency to be able to use them. Instead, employees are being told they can use surgical masks.

"It makes me nauseous really to think that the agency isn't taking that pandemic seriously."

Swick says inmates with COVID-19 symptoms are not being tested. There are 4 tests at the compound but more than 4 inmates in isolation.

"It's an easy way to tell people that we don't have any inmates that are positive for this virus when we're not testing inmates."

Now, these union leaders are calling on the public to contact elected leaders so they can put pressure on the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons.

Swick says, "If we have a major issue with this pandemic in the institution it's going to affect the local community and people should be concerned with that."

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