U.S. Justice Department watchdog to inspect federal prisons' handling of coronavirus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general said on Wednesday his office had launched “remote inspections” to review whether the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was complying with guidelines to prevent, manage and contain the spread of the novel coronavirus inside the prison system.

The announcement on the inspector general’s website came after repeated complaints by federal prison staff and inmates over unsanitary conditions inside many facilities, the lack of social distancing and problems getting protective equipment such as masks.

Since March 28, 14 inmates at prison complexes in Louisiana, Ohio and North Carolina have died from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

As of April 14, the BOP said at least 446 federal inmates and 248 BOP staff have tested positive for the illness.

Joe Rojas, southeast regional vice president of AFGE Council of Prisons Local 33 union, said the inspection is needed, and he hoped the investigators will talk to staff on the front lines.

“The truth is going to be damning against the agency,” he said of BOP’s handling of the pandemic.

BOP spokesman Justin Long said the bureau welcomed the inspector general’s review, adding it is “working hard to prevent, contain, and mitigate the spread of this global pandemic in its correctional settings.”

Since April 1, the BOP has been on a lockdown across its 122 facilities, a move that has largely restricted 175,000 inmates to their cells and dormitories.

However, staff from several federal prisons have told Reuters that movement of some inmates has continued, raising concerns infected prisoners could be placed in facilities or moved into other parts of a prison complex that have not yet faced an outbreak of the new coronavirus.

The continued movement of inmates was an issue identified in an April 11 memo drafted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) following a recent site visit to the Forrest City Federal Correctional Institute in Arkansas.

CDC staff found during the tour that unlocked corridors allowed prisoners to move between housing pods. Such movements “need to be curtailed,” the memo said. Prison employees were seen wearing “damaged” or “contaminated” masks.

Prison staff and managers gave the CDC inspectors conflicting information about whether adequate protective gear was readily available.

The CDC urged the BOP to improve communications about the availability of protective gear and train staff how to use it.

Long said the BOP is reviewing the CDC’s findings.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman