Federal prison system to begin moving nearly 7K inmates

A Federal Bureau of Federal Prisons truck drives past barbed wire fences at the Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas, Saturday, May 16, 2020. Hundreds of inmates inside the facility have tested positive for COVID-19 and several inmates have died with numbers expected to rise. (AP Photo/LM Otero) (Lm Otero, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The federal Bureau of Prisons will begin moving about 6,800 inmates who have been waiting in local detention centers across the U.S. to federal prisons to avoid jail overcrowding in the coronavirus pandemic, officials said Friday.

It's not clear when it would begin. The inmates will be sent to one of three designated quarantine sites — FCC Yazoo City in Mississippi, FCC Victorville in California and FTC Oklahoma City — or to a Bureau of Prisons detention center.

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All the inmates who are being moved will be tested for COVID-19 when they arrive at the Bureau of Prisons facility and would be tested again before they are moved to the prison where they would serve their sentence.

The prisoners have already been sentenced to federal crimes but were unable to be moved from local facilities as the coronavirus pandemic struck over concerns the virus would spread rampantly.

In a memo issued to staff earlier this week, Bureau of Prisons officials said the inmates would be held there “until such time that inmates can be moved safely to their final destination.” The BOP says it has suspended most transfers of inmates already in the federal system, but there are still exceptions for forensic studies, medical or mental health treatment, residential reentry and inmates who are wanted by other juristictions.

Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal said there has been an expanded testing capacity that will help to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in the federal prison system. As of Friday, more than 4,641 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at Bureau of Prisons facilities; 3,047 had recovered. There have been 59 inmate deaths since late March.

The Bureau of Prisons said it has worked with the U.S. Marshals Service to decreased internal movement of inmates by about 90% as compared to this time last year and newly sentenced inmates have been held in local detention centers across the U.S. Inmates move from facility to facility for a variety of reasons, including for court appearances, sentencing, to manage the number of inmates at each facility or for medical or disciplinary reasons.

But the agency says as courts begin to work again after lockdowns, officials must begin moving inmates to “alleviate population pressures” at local detention facilities.

“We believe our proactive approach, including our expanded inmate testing capacity, will aid the Bureau to further combat the introduction and spread of the virus within our prison system,” Carvajal said in a statement.

An additional 7,000 inmates who are already held at Bureau of Prisons facilities, but have been awaiting moves to other prisons, will also be moved “at a later date,” the agency said.

The response from the federal Bureau of Prisons coronavirus has raised alarm among advocates and lawmakers about whether the agency is doing enough to ensure the safety of the about 137,000 inmates serving time in federal facilities.

And even though officials have stressed infection and death rates inside prisons are lower compared with outside, a high number of inmates tested come back positive — signs that COVID-19 cases are left uncovered.

Inmate testing at the designated sites is being performed using Abbott’s ID Now point-of-care test technology, which the Food and Drug Administration flagged last week for potentially returning false negative results. A study by New York University showed that the device returned false negatives for 48% of tests that were found to be positive using another testing technology.

In a statement, Abbott said the NYU study results were not consistent with other studies, which have shown performance rates ranging from more than 80% to as high as 94%.

Testing is not available for employees at federal prison facilities, the memo said, adding that wardens are encouraged to provide a list of possible testing sites in the community where staff can be tested.

The federal prison system is continuing coronavirus-related restrictions, including a ban on visitors and minimal inmate transfers, at least through the end of June.

The Bureau of Prisons also said Friday that the warden of a Louisiana federal prison complex where eight inmates have died of coronavirus and dozens more have been infected has been put on a "temporary duty assignment” at a regional office. As warden at Oakdale, Rodney Myers faced criticism from employees for testing shortages and a lack of transparency on which inmates and how many had tested positive.


Sisak reported from New York.

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