Last week, as millions more Americans received a coronavirus vaccine, 816 people in prison contracted Covid-19. They joined the nearly 400,000 incarcerated individuals who have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began, many of whom are housed in crowded facilities with limited access to testing and medical care.
American Oversight has received more documents from the Federal Bureau of Prisons containing communications from March and April 2020 that provide further details about the BOP’s pandemic response. The documents show that BOP officials relied on inadequate mitigation measures, including conducting limited testing and relying on guidance that allowed groups to gather in person, even while demonstrating an understanding of how the coronavirus spread.
On March 19, 2020, in an email to an individual whose name is redacted, BOP Medical Director Jeffery Allen wrote: “As more data becomes available, it appears that the symptoms are not as simple as originally described, as you point out. In addition, it appears that many people are contagious for at least several days before they become symptomatic.”
Despite knowing about the risk of asymptomatic transmission, the BOP adopted policies that focused on screening staff for Covid-19 symptoms. On March 30, Allen sent an email about a staff member who might have been exposed to the coronavirus: “Early on in the Covid response, we were telling staff to self-quarantine after a potential exposure to Covid. However based on some language in CDC guidance and the fact that we are screening all staff now, we do not quarantine them but screen each day when they come to work.”
On April 2, Allen distributed talking points that gave more insight into this screening, which did not include routine Covid-19 testing of staff. Allen said the talking points could be used to “address why the BOP is not routinely testing staff for Covid as part of its staff screening program,” providing reasons like “Medical science doesn’t support it,” and “Most BOP institutions can’t do it.” The next day, BOP Director Michael Carvajal forwarded these talking points to an individual whose name is redacted.
Scientists across the country were calling for mass Covid-19 testing in March; on April 1, Robert Redfield, then the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted the prevalence of asymptomatic spread. Reporting later showed that BOP under-tested incarcerated people as well, in many cases only testing them when they displayed symptoms, and sometimes not even then.
Other BOP policies at the time also enabled the spread of the virus. On March 31, BOP Deputy Director Gene Beasley shared guidance with wardens that stated, “Town Hall meetings can be conducted at open dorm facilities.” These facilities included minimum- and low-security prisons, which have lower staff-to-faculty ratios than higher-security facilities. This allowed facilities to continue to convene staff and incarcerated people in large groups. A Department of Justice report later showed that at this time, leadership at the Coleman correctional complex, a Florida facility that includes a low-security camp, did not allow staff members to bring in their own face masks.
While the advisory shared by Beasley said that officials should “invoke a $25 commissary limit” — restricting how much money incarcerated people could spend at the prison store — and instructed the wardens to ensure “inmates are provided an opportunity to shower 3 days a week,” multiple reports have shown that incarcerated individuals across BOP facilities had limited access to sanitary supplies like soap and hand sanitizer. An email from Beasley sent on April 4 showed that BOP was providing every incarcerated individual with only one surgical mask.
The documents also shed light on BOP’s methods for tracking Covid-19 deaths, which the Marshall Project has noted has most likely produced undercounts. On April 3, Carvajal sent Sonya Thompson, the assistant director of the BOP Information, Policy, and Public Affairs Division, a list of 109 confirmed Covid-19 cases. In response, Thompson commented: “Note that this method too will never be 100% precise because we will have inmates go out to hospital with no pending or confirmed test and they may die without such a test. That was in fact the case with one of the Elkton inmates who passed away. He was listed as ‘Clinically Probable’ but had no confirmed test.”
Finally, the documents show that BOP faced staffing and supply shortages in the pandemic’s early months. On March 10, Allen wrote, “I expect we’ll be getting questions about testing for Covid-19 as well, so we’ll need to have a response when it comes up.” An individual whose name was redacted noted that supplies for both flu and coronavirus testing were low.
Emails from April 6 and April 13 show officials placed and tracked orders for testing machines and kits amid shortages. At the same time, BOP facilities faced staffing shortages as staff members tested positive; in one exchange on April 4, an individual wrote, “We are losing staff daily and have zero idea how to handle any of this.”
These documents also include information about other attempts to deal with testing shortages and early outbreaks in BOP facilities. We obtained additional records that included BOP policies regarding the transfer of incarcerated individuals to home confinement, which the agency was slow to adopt.
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