President Biden promised on his first full day in office to reevaluate the federal Bureau of Prisons’ Covid-19 protocols and to release additional data on the virus’s spread in prisons, two of a slew of pledges aimed at ensuring the United States’ pandemic response was equitable.
But that particular order never arrived. And now, as Covid-19 levels are rising in multiple federal prisons across the country as a result of the Omicron variant and still-inadequate infection control, advocates claim that the BOP’s Covid-19 protocols are as broken as they have always been.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 3,000 incarcerated people have died from Covid-19, including approximately 300 in federal custody. After adjusting for the fact that the prison population is younger, people in prison are roughly three times more likely to die of Covid-19 than the general population.
Reversing that trend became part of Biden’s pandemic strategy, as well as a pillar of his larger goal of prioritizing equity throughout his Covid-19 response. However, interviews with leading prison advocates, independent legal and medical experts, a former federal prisoner, and a United States senator reveal persistent and fundamental problems with the BOP’s approach to Covid-19. Poor infection control in prisons; inaccurate, obfuscated data on how many incarcerated people are infected with and have died from Covid-19; a subpar vaccine rollout; and almost no public information on how the BOP prioritizes booster shots for its population are all examples.
“They have a long runway to meet the goals they set for themselves in terms of health equity, racial equity, and civil and human rights in general,” said Sakira Cook, senior program director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil rights organizations.
They’re on the right track, she says, but there are “miles to go.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice, which oversees the BOP, claimed that the agency adheres to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention infection control guidelines. She stated in a statement that the Bureau of Prisons has made significant progress in vaccinating the prison population and outlined efforts to be transparent about prison conditions. To claim that the White House had fulfilled its promise, a White House spokesperson pointed to a separate executive order focused on federal workers, which was released before Biden pledged to overhaul prisons’ Covid response. That order makes no mention of the BOP.
Because many facilities are run by state authorities, and roughly 3,000 jails are typically run by local agencies such as counties, Biden does not have the unilateral power to address disparities across the entire prison system. He does, however, have the authority to make changes in federal prisons run by the Bureau of Prisons.
The prison system’s struggles to address the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic have been well documented, and they frequently mirrored struggles outside the prison walls, such as limited access to Covid-19 tests. But the rapid deterioration in several prison systems over the last few weeks suggest that many aspects of the BOP’s Covid response remain broken two years after the pandemic began.
According to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who toured the facility last week, people at FCI Danbury in Connecticut are still waiting three days for Covid-19 test results.
And, at least in Danbury, it’s not just Omicron that’s driving the surge. According to data compiled by a team at the University of Iowa, there were 234 new cases in a population of roughly 1,000 people during the month of January, but there is no frequent testing and those in quarantine aren’t being monitored for worsening symptoms, according to Sarah Russell, the director of the Quinnipiac Legal Clinic, who previously filed a class-action lawsuit against the facility challenging its Covid-19 protocols.
She provided two other stark examples: at the start of a late December outbreak, the facility’s staff decided, at least initially, not to quarantine women infected with Covid-19, and they also refused to tell people whether they were infected, she said. Similarly, on Jan. 22, they were unable to isolate two men who tested positive until the following day.