Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, people held in detention were already at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19 thanks to crowded and unsanitary conditions. Actions by officials, such as the nearly wholesale denial of compassionate release requests, the transfers of infected prisoners, and reckless disregard for safety measures have made things far more dangerous.
American Oversight has obtained documents that provide more information on how the Federal Bureau of Prisons missed key early opportunities to mitigate the virus’ spread within facilities and took actions that made it difficult for incarcerated people to access critical medicines. The documents also suggest that Covid-19 cases among incarcerated people in BOP facilities may have been present earlier than publicly reported.
On Jan. 31, BOP Medical Director Jeffery Allen emailed officials from the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) to inquire about the agency’s screening process for detainees. “We needed to get something out today so we are starting off with a ‘screen all inmates’ approach,” Allen wrote.
Maureen Cippel, the chief officer of the USMS Prisoner Operations Division, responded, “As the USMS does not own/run their facilities, the USMS relies on the facilities to perform any screening for infectious diseases, usually by following state health department guidance.”
Reporting by the Marshall Project revealed that in the months that followed, the Marshals Service, which handles most long-distance prison transfers, continued transferring people to new facilities without testing them or putting them in quarantine. Though the Marshals Service said the BOP was responsible for testing new arrivals, BOP did not respond to the Marshall Project’s requests for comment. It is clear, however, that the thousands of transfers across prison facilities contributed to multiple Covid-19 outbreaks.
The emails also reflect the lack of awareness of how much the coronavirus had already spread in the early months of the year. CDC reports have shown that direct transmission of the coronavirus within the U.S. had started as early as January, when much of the focus was on screening travelers from China.
On Feb. 4, Regina Bradley, a regional public health services administrator, sent an email to BOP titled “Question – Guidance Coronavirus Infection – Inmate Screening and Management.” Bradley asked: “Are we just focusing on inmate[s] that traveled from mainland China in the past 14 days[?] The reason for asking is the CDC is referencing states with confirmed cases, such as Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington. Should we be concerned about inmates transferring from these states?”
Julie King, the national infection control coordinator at BOP, replied, “We do not need to focus on inmates from U.S. only inmates coming from China. … There is currently no person to person transmission in the U.S. outside of direct contacts to persons that have just returned and are under investigation.”
The records obtained by American Oversight also include emails indicating that at least some BOP officials resisted coronavirus mitigation measures or took actions that may have harmed incarcerated people who were not sick with the virus.
On March 11, Allen, BOP’s medical director, was forwarded an email from a redacted sender titled “Coronavirus Concern.” The sender wrote: “Staff have not been issued any N-95 masks. Management has not even … purchased any cleaning supplies or hand sanitizer for daily staff use.” According to the sender, after they requested cleaning supplies for the entire office, they were “told to go buy it yourself.”
Later that month, President Donald Trump began his persistent and questionable promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment. While later studies showed it was not effective in helping sick patients, the president’s insistence on the antimalarial drug’s status as a pandemic game-changer led to shortages for those who had relied on it to treat lupus or rheumatoid arthritis — including those in detention facilities.
The BOP documents include a March 23 memo titled “Changes to hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin formulary status,” which noted that both drugs were being removed from the drug formulary because they had garnered interest as possible coronavirus treatments and suggested that patients who relied on these treatments, including for bacterial infections, should seek alternatives. An undated announcement to providers further stated that they could only use hydroxychloroquine for those hospitalized with Covid-19.
Two days before that memo was sent, BOP had publicly confirmed the first Covid-19 case in the federal prison system, that of a man in a New York City jail. The BOP documents show there was concern that there had been possible transmission of the virus in other facilities more than a week earlier.
On March 14, Allen sent an email to Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Darrin Harmon titled “LEX Inmates quarantined for COVID?” Allen wrote, “The SitRep mentioned there are two inmate cases at LEX [the Federal Medical Center Lexington] who are affected in some way related to COVID.”
Harmon responded, “I know of the 1 that was sent out thursday pending test results.” He later forwarded Allen an email with more details — no new cases had been reported and the results of Covid-19 tests still had not been received.
On March 15, Allen sent an email to Regional Director Jeff Krueger asking about an incarcerated person at a facility in Terre Haute, Ind. “If I hear it correctly, the SitRep indicated there was an inmate at [Terre Haute] who is ‘affected,’” Allen wrote. “Is that correct? If so, do you have any details related to that?”
Krueger confirmed there was an incarcerated person with a low-grade temperature who was in quarantine. The BOP documents contained no other records regarding any additional containment or mitigation efforts in those two facilities in response to these possible infections, and it isn’t clear from the records whether those two instances were in fact confirmed Covid-19 cases.
Back in March, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request to BOP seeking communications with private prison contractors, prison health-care and service contractors, or lobbyists representing private prisons. Private contractors operate more than 10 BOP facilities, and our request included contractors in states that were hit by the virus at the time, such as California. But BOP told us in early September that it had found no records, from Feb. 24 to the date of search, of any email communications about Covid-19 between BOP officials and those running prisons in these states.
In June, when BOP deployed federal prison officers to respond to nationwide protests, we requested final assessments, reports, or guidance related to the impact of tear gas, mass arrests, jailing, or detention on the spread of the coronavirus. During the protests, authorities held protesters in enclosed spaces and used tear gas, which medical experts said could increase the risk of contracting Covid-19. BOP officers were also seen without face masks as they patrolled crowds of protesters, afterwards returning to prison facilities. But BOP found no records responsive to our requests.
Part of Investigation: