Durbin, Warren To Federal Prison Authorities: Take Urgent Action To Contain Further Spread Of COVID-19 In Federal Prisons

BOP Is Failing To Contain COVID-19 Within Its Facilities, Including By Using Counterproductive And Harmful Measures Like Solitary Confinement

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are urging the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to act promptly to reduce the rapid spread of COVID-19 in federal facilities by adopting a public health-driven approach to managing the novel coronavirus, including  releasing eligible individuals to home confinement and adopting appropriate and humane procedures to medically isolate or quarantine individuals infected with COVID-19 instead of counterproductive and harmful measures like solitary confinement. 

“You have the discretion to significantly reduce the risk the pandemic poses to BOP staff, inmates, and the surrounding communities, by reducing prison populations. Every day that you fail to do so, more people are at risk,” the Senators wrote to Attorney General William Barr and BOP Director Michael Carvajal. 

On March 23, 2020, when a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Durbin and Warren wrote to BOP urging them to protect federal prison staff and inmates from COVID-19 spread, just three inmates and three staff members in BOP facilities had tested positive for the virus. By the time BOP Director Carvajal testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 2, 2020, 68 inmates had died, more than 5,200 inmates and 600 staff had tested positive, and the rate of infection within BOP was more than six times higher than in the general population. Now the virus has spread to almost every BOP institution and dozens of federal halfway houses.

Despite this rapid spread, AG Barr's March 26, 2020 memorandum directing BOP to prioritize home confinement during the pandemic, and the First Step Act and CARES Act provisions granting BOP broad authorities to transfer vulnerable inmates via compassionate release and elderly home confinement, BOP has transferred just four percent of inmates while thousands remain eligible for safe release.

Instead, BOP facilities have reportedly been placing inmates who test positive for the disease in solitary confinement against recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that they instead be placed in medical isolation. The senators call for a public-health focused treatment and response to COVID-19 to stem the risk of COVID-19 transmission throughout the prison and allowing individuals to be medically evaluated. Solitary confinement, by contrast, can inflict severe and long-term physical and psychological trauma and puts inmates at higher risk of suicide. Fear of being placed in solitary confinement can also discourage inmates from coming forward when they are sick, putting other inmates and staff at higher risk of contracting the virus.

In short, medical isolation should be a humane public-health focused treatment and response to COVID-19, not a punishment for those who have the disease or may have been exposed,” the Senators wrote in a separate letter to BOP Director Carvajal. 

In their letters, Durbin and Warren have asked BOP and DOJ to respond to questions about why BOP has delayed releasing eligible inmates and utterly failed to contain the considerable spread of COVID-19 throughout their facilities.

Full text of the letter to AG Barr and BOP Director Carvajal on DOJ’s failure to contain the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons is available here.

Full text of the letter to BOP Director Carvajal on solitary confinement is available here.