Fears grow that inmate transfers may spread coronavirus to communities

As states look to restrict activities over coronavirus, inmates are still moving into, out of and between federal prisons

The Bureau of Prisons is continuing to transfer inmates, raising concerns by lawmakers and prison staff that could lead to a spread of coronavirus. (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
The Bureau of Prisons is continuing to transfer inmates, raising concerns by lawmakers and prison staff that could lead to a spread of coronavirus. (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
Posted March 23, 2020 at 5:26pm

Continued inmate transfers by the Federal Bureau of Prisons could expose correctional officers and the communities where they live to the coronavirus, prison staff and lawmakers warn.

Those concerns come a week after the bureau said that transfers would be suspended.

“I think the Bureau of Prisons, by transferring these incarcerated individuals from one place to another, it certainly goes against everything we’ve been doing to flatten the curve,” Republican Rep. Fred Keller of Pennsylvania said Monday.

Brandy Moore, national secretary-treasurer for the corrections officers’ union, said Monday that frequent inmate transfers into and between facilities are happening.

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“They can call it whatever they want. They’re still fully moving inmates from place to place, and it’s crazy,” said Moore, a staff member at the federal prison in Forrest City, Ark.

Inmates may have little or no contact with the communities outside the razor wire of their prisons. But correctional officers leave after finishing their shifts. If they are exposed to inmates with the coronavirus, the disease could spread. The availability of test kits in federal prisons is extremely limited.

Keller said the bureau told his office on Friday that it did not have any immediate plans to transfer inmates to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. After Keller’s office heard reports of new transfers over the weekend, the bureau appeared to walk that back.

“We got something today that basically passed the buck over to the U.S. Marshals Service,” Keller told said.

In a statement to Keller’s office, the Bureau of Prisons said that it “has no authority to refuse U.S. Marshals new admissions.”

CQ Roll Call reported last week that several other lawmakers have pressed the bureau on how it plans to address the pandemic, and some civil rights groups have called for the bureau to release elderly inmates and those with health conditions.

At that time, it was reported that the Bureau of Prisons had, on March 13, suspended social visits, volunteers and nonessential contractors from federal prisons for 30 days — as well as all transfers between prisons.

An undated statement on the bureau’s website explains that “inmate internal movement is suspended with limited exceptions.”

“This suspension, 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,” the statement says.

Transfers can occur for a variety of reasons, including routine medical trips, transfers from federal custody to state custody and limited bed space.

The bureau only transfers inmates after a screening process to ensure that they do not have a cough, shortness of breath or a temperature over 100.4 Fahrenheit, according to its statement. But scientists now believe people with limited or no symptoms may be spreading coronavirus.

Three federal inmates and three prison staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Saturday, according to the bureau’s website.

The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The union that represents federal correctional officers across the country (Council of Prison Locals C-33) has also raised concerns about what it says is a lack of adequate protective gear for prison staff and test kits for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

CQ Roll Call previously reported that federal prisons had not stocked their own COVID-19 test kits. In a statement Friday, the bureau confirmed that it is relying on local authorities — many of whom are already rationing tests due to limited supplies — to test its inmates.

The Bureau of Prisons says on its website that new, asymptomatic inmates with a risk for coronavirus exposure are quarantined.

But Moore says many facilities lack adequate space to properly isolate those inmates, and that all quarantined inmates are being grouped together.

Outside of quarantine, inmates at many facilities are mingling as usual, Moore said.

“Even though everywhere else is like, ‘Don’t go out in groups of ten or more, don’t do this, don’t do that.’ We’re not doing that in the prison system,” she said.