March 23, 2020 / 5:10 PM / in 11 days

U.S. prison union official urges halt to inmate transfers due to coronavirus spread

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is still transferring some inmates from coronavirus hotspots such as New York City to prisons in other parts of the country, even as three prisoners tested positive for the COVID-19 respiratory illness over the weekend, a top union official said on Monday.

American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Local 33 President Shane Fausey called on Attorney General William Barr to take “unprecedented” action to temporarily stop the movement of all prisoners between facilities until the virus can be contained.

“I am imploring the attorney general of the United States to stop all inmate movement, shelter in place at least for 14 to 21 days, following the guidance of the White House press briefings,” he said in a phone interview.

“We need to flatten this curve,” he added, referring to the strategy of slowing the virus’ spread to prevent hospitals and healthcare systems from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

A BOP spokesman said the bureau has “ample” medical and sanitation supplies and has taken protective measures, such as placing all new inmates into 14-day quarantines.

“BOP may need to move inmates to better manage the detention bedspace as well as assure that administrative facilities do not become overcrowded beyond available resources,” the spokesman added.

The BOP, which operates 122 facilities, has taken some precautions similar to those in state and local jails and prisons by suspending social visits, though some states have taken more drastic measures. New Jersey, for instance, said on Monday it plans to release “low-risk” inmates serving county jail sentences [L1N2BG1M6]

U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed on Sunday he is mulling an executive order to let BOP release some “totally nonviolent prisoners,” while criminal justice advocates are pushing Congress to let some elderly inmates free sooner.

The BOP’s new policies do call for scaling back inmate movements, but exemptions exist for managing bed space and medical and court trips.

Fausey flagged as particularly concerning cases where newly processed prisoners are sent from facilities in New York City to prisons in western Pennsylvania.

New York City is the current epicenter of the national epidemic with nearly 17,000 known cases.

Over the weekend, one inmate at a BOP detention facility in the New York borough of Brooklyn tested positive for COVID-19.

Another two inmates at a prison complex in Oakdale, Louisiana are in isolation after becoming infected, and three BOP staffers have the illness, the BOP website says.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Cynthia Osterman

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