The union for employees at Federal Bureau of Prison facilities in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn are warning that severe staff shortages that predated the COVID-19 pandemic are putting an even greater burden on a workforce that shrinks by the day as the virus sidelines more of them.
"We were already critically understaffed, and this situation is only making it worse," said Tyrone Covington, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3148, which represents workers at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. "We could get to the point where we won't be able to maintain supervision of the inmate population."
'Going to Get Worse'
He continued, "This is going to get worse as the pandemic peaks, and the BOP needs to have conversations now with Governor Cuomo about using the National Guard to support us."
On March 31, Federal officials announced that BOP inmates throughout the system would be kept in their assigned cells in lock-down for at least 14 days, with the possibility that period might be extended.
Mr. Covington's concerns were expressed as prisons systems across the United States, which have over 2.2 million people in custody, grappled with the pandemic's impact.
California granted early release to 3,500 inmates from 35 state prisons as Reuters news service documented surging infection rates throughout the U.S. penal system.
The Washington Post quoted Dr. Ross MacDonald, the chief physician at Rikers Island, describing the situation at the sprawling facility as a "public- health disaster unfolding before our eyes."
So far, the City of New York has released 900 prisoners.
Last August, the death of Jeffrey Epstein in MCC put chronic short-staffing at that jail in the national spotlight. Union officials maintain that despite the publicity over the apparent suicide death of the high-profile defendant, personnel shortages persist, with potentially dire consequences for staff and inmates as the pandemic widens.
Mr. Covington said that the BOP policy of augmentation, which requires prison counselors, teachers and other workers to handle correction-officer duties, was undermining the continuity of inmate services.
"Now, because of the pandemic the inmates are not able to see their loved ones and they have lost access to their GED, educational programs, and all of the First Step reforms that had to go," he said. "And for the staff you are seeing us working four and five days of double shifts in a row."
Child-care for single parents and concerns about bringing the virus home to family loom large for their members, according to union officials.
"We don't want to expose our family, and COVID-19 can't be contained in the facility," Mr. Covington said. "They can't promise you won't bring it home."
One union official said he had sent his children to live with relatives for the duration of the crisis.
Press for Hazard Pay
On March 27, the AFGE sued the Federal Government on behalf of its members who were exposed to the coronavirus while working for a 25-percent hazard-pay differential.
"Each day front-line Federal employees willingly risk their health and their families' health to provide critical services to the American people," said AFGE National President Everett Kelley. "It is our hope that the government does right by these employees and pays them the hazardous-duty pay they've earned."
Anthony Sanon, who as president of AFGE Local 205, represents the staff at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, said a lack of staffing was not the only issue at a facility that already has more than 100 inmates in quarantine.
"For weeks the BOP was moving [150-200] prisoners [to other facilities] not mindful of COVID-19, and despite the potential impact on our members, their families or the greater community," he said. "Now, with this modified lock-down, we will have to see to what degree these movements continue that will result in cross-contaminating the entire prison system."
Concerned by Reversal
Mr. Sanon said he was concerned that the facility had retreated from its original policy early in the outbreak that required Correction Officers who had contact with a COVID-positive inmate to self-quarantine. "Then they brought back our members who had been exposed just one or two days later, saying they must continue to work as long as they were asymptomatic," he said.
On March 30, Mr. Kelley in a statement called on BOP Director Michael Carvajal to stop the transport of untested inmates "until the COVID-19 crisis is under control."
According to the agency, its COVID-19 planning since January has been guided by directives from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Office of the Vice President.
The BOP said it had to continue to accept pretrial inmates awaiting trial and also accept newly convicted inmates.
"The BOP is also moving inmates as required by law, for instance, to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment," the agency said. "These also include transfers related to forensic studies, federal or state writs for prosecution, Interstate Agreements on Detainers (IAD), and RRC placements. And while BOP can control and limit its intra-agency movements, to reiterate, the BOP has no authority to refuse inmates brought to us by the [U.S. Marshals Service]."
The agency said it has instituted a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all inmates entering their system and is "working with the U.S. Marshals Service, the federal courts, and State and local correctional institutions to mitigate the risk of exposure in pretrial detention and jail facilities and to maximize the safe transfer of inmates into BOP custody."
On March 26 Attorney General William Barr told reporters that he had instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to identify at-risk prisoners who could continue to serve their sentence under home confinement as a way to reduce the prison population.
He said that of the 146,000 inmates in BOP custody, close to one-third had pre-existing medical conditions, with 10,000 over 60 years old.
"You want to make sure that our institutions don't become petri dishes and it spreads rapidly through a particular institution," Mr. Barr said. "But we have the protocols that are designed to stop it and we are using all the tools we have to protect the inmates."
Mr. Sanon and Mr. Covington said neither the MCC nor the MDC had shifted prisoners to home confinement.
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