Opinions and Legal Insights

U.S. Prison Handling of COVID-19 Called ‘Complete Disaster’

Kareen “Troy” Troitino spent July working in a prison medical facility just as coronavirus was surging through Miami’s Federal Correctional Institution, where the number of confirmed cases ballooned from a handful of prisoners to nearly 100 in days. Troitino, a corrections officer and union president, says that despite assurances, the Bureau of Prisons’ response to the coronavirus pandemic was endangering the lives of federal employees and prisoners alike, reports the Washington Post. “All of us are trying to survive,” Troitino said. “Your health affects me, and vice versa. Inmates and staff, we do not feel safe.” He is among federal workers suing the government for hazard pay over what they say are risky conditions they’re forced to work under during the pandemic. BOP Director Michael Carvajal has dismissed scrutiny of the bureau as “misinformation.”

As of June 1, Carvajal said 1,650 federal inmates and 171 bureau staff had tested positive. Less than 12 weeks later, those numbers grew to 11,953 prisoners and 1,436 staff, with more than 120 combined deaths, says UCLA’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. Federal public defenders say COVID-19 is worse in federal than state prisons, says Prof. Brendan Saloner of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is studying the issue. Interviews with federal prison employees, prisoners, lawyers and health and legal experts who monitor prisons show the ways by which the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems in federal prisons; they range from overcrowding and staff shortages to a lack of transparency around policies for personal protective equipment and testing. “It’s a complete disaster,” said Rob Norcross, a federal inmate in Georgia. The bureau’s stated guidelines about sanitization and social distancing don’t comport with reality, Norcross said: Prison camp inmates are barred from using hand sanitizer, lack cleaning supplies and have nowhere they can move to to create space.