Federal government said it halted prison transfers. They’re still happening

Congressman, corrections union say Bureau of Prisons is putting Pa. communities at risk of coronavirus

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari

This is a developing story. We will update with new quotes and comments as they come in.

A Republican congressman, corrections union officials, and prisoner rights advocates are criticizing the Federal Bureau of Prisons for continuing to transfer inmates into Pennsylvania from areas that are considered high-risk for coronavirus transmission.

On March 13, the Bureau of Prisons said that there would be no transfers of inmates between facilities for 30 days to avoid spreading the coronavirus. But less than two weeks later, the BOP continues to shuffle inmates into federal prisons in Pennsylvania, union officials say.

“We took it today that the BOP has no intentions of halting transfers,” said Shane Fauser, national president for the Council of Prison Locals C-33.

Fauser, along with U.S. Rep. Fred Keller — whose district includes U.S. Penitentiary Lewisburg — said in a call Monday that the bureau is putting Pennsylvania’s inmates and communities at risk. The communities around the Lewisburg facility — as of now — report no known cases of COVID-19.

On Monday’s call, Keller said a Bureau of Prisons official had told him it wasn’t up to the bureau to make decisions on transfers, despite earlier correspondence saying it had halted them. The bureau now says that responsibility lies with the U.S. Marshals Service, which is also governed by the Department of Justice.

Emails and messages to both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons went unanswered on Monday afternoon.

“I think the BOP really dropped the ball on this, and they’re passing the buck,” Keller said.

On Friday, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project wrote a letter to the director of the prison bureau, Micahel Carvajal, attempting to confirm if the transfers were continuing. According to the project, an anonymous tip was sent to a staff member saying that busses were in the process of transporting prisoners to the federal prison in Lewisburg from both Harrisburg and New York.

The transfers could be attributed to cramped prison conditions. Last week, the bureau said it would consider transferring inmates to free up space in some facilities, with the goal of helping staff ensure prisoners can practice social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

But Su Ming Yeh, interim executive director for the Institutional Law Project, said that those transfers need to be done responsibly.

“Our worry is that if transfers happen, they’re coming from areas where there are a high number of confirmed cases of coronavirus,” she said, noting that some of the transfers they were tipped off to could be inmates from a federal facility in Brooklyn.

The fear, prison staff representatives say, is that the medical screenings for inmates don’t accurately capture who is possibly infected with the coronavirus. According to a post on its website, the Bureau of Prisons checks inmate temperatures before they leave a facility and upon entering, but many people are asymptomatic carriers of the virus — as has been reported for weeks.

The possibility of a COVID-19 case at the Lewisburg facility, located near Sunbury, worries Andy Kline, president of the corrections officers union at the prison. He said that if the facility sees an increase in prisoners with the virus, he guarantees medical staff will not have enough personal protective equipment to treat them safely.

“What we’re trying to do is limit the impact of bringing this into our area and somehow getting it outside of our prison,” he said. “I can’t be responsible if it spreads to a hospital or nursing home.”

And in rural communities around facilities such as Lewisburg and Canaan, hospitals will likely be overwhelmed.

“Our hospitals are already limited in what they can handle,” said Sierra Shamer, a paralegal at the Lewisburg Prison Project.

The fear of coronavirus spreading inside federal prisons mirrors concerns that prisoner advocates have been making about state and county prisons. Prisons are notoriously unclean and house inmates who already suffer from poor health.

To avoid outbreaks in local jails and prisons, some counties, such as Allegheny County, have been releasing non-violent prisoners. The ACLU of Pennsylvania last week demanded the state release inmates in its facilities, claiming that multiple inmates told its staff about unconfirmed COVID-19 cases in SCI Phoenix and Dallas. (The Department of Corrections would not give details on tests or cases within the prison.)

But as PA Post reported last week, Pennsylvania’s political leaders have shown little interest in aggressively downsizing the state’s prison population, which totals some 47,000 inmates.

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