Durbin Discusses COVID-19 Threat At Federal Prisons With Federal Public And Community Defenders

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) today spoke with members of the Federal Public and Community Defenders, including Thomas Patton, Federal Public Defender for the Central District of Illinois, and John Murphy, Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of Illinois, about the failure of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to maintain a safe environment for inmates and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Durbin heard how BOP has failed to reduce the prison population to protect vulnerable inmates and staff, and failed to adequately provide personal protective equipment. 

To date, more than 6,000 BOP inmates and more than 600 staff have tested positive for COVID-19.  This rate of infection is nearly seven times greater than the rate in the general population in the United States.  At the same time, only two percent of the prison population has been transferred to home confinement.  Tragically, at least 78 inmates in BOP custody—nearly all of whom had preexisting conditions that made them vulnerable—as well as one BOP staff member have died.  Several of these inmates were within a few months of being released.

“What’s going on in BOP facilities is nothing short of a nightmare. Today, I heard from federal public and community defenders who have faced stubborn resistance from the Department of Justice when it comes to releasing vulnerable inmates to home confinement during the pandemic,” said Durbin. “BOP should use its authority under the First Step Act and CARES Act to protect sick and vulnerable inmates and slow the spread of this virus in its prison population. Right now, they are putting inmates and staff at great risk and that must stop.”

On March 23, Durbin and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the lead authors of the bipartisan First Step Act (FSA), led 12 of their colleagues in a bipartisan letter pressing the Trump Administration to take necessary steps to protect the health and wellbeing of federal prison staff and inmates in Federal custody, particularly by using their authority under the FSA.  At the time of their letter, only three inmates and three staff members had tested positive for COVID-19.  Two months later, more than 6,000 inmates and more than 600 staff have tested positive.