WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — Concerned about the safety of inmates and prison staff during the coronavirus pandemic, two U.S. senators are calling for an internal investigation into the federal prison system.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., say they are worried facilities aren’t doing enough to protect prisoners.
“There’s been an abnormally high number of deaths,” Grassley noted in a phone interview. “We don’t know whether the proper protocol has been followed or not.”
He and Durbin penned a letter to the inspector general of the Department of Justice, asking the watchdog to find out whether the Bureau of Prisons is following federal guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep the prisoners safe,” Grassley said.
Nearly 30 federal inmates have died of COVID-19, and the number of inmates who tested positive for the virus more than doubled in the last week from 497 cases to well over 1,000.
The Bureau of Prisons says it has increased testing and is carefully monitoring the virus’ spread at its 122 facilities.
But Durbin said he fears the agency is “significantly underestimating the rate infection.”
“This is a matter of human dignity,” said Heather Rice-Minus of the nonprofit advocacy group Prison Fellowship. “It’s literally life and death.”
She hopes the review with pressure the Bureau of release nonviolent prisoners, especially those in quarantine, to home confinement more quickly.
“The Bureau of Prisons has placed people who are slotted to be released to home confinement into quarantine for 14 days,” Rice-Minus said. “There’s a lot of anxiety and frustration among families.”
She said the inspector general’s check would also bring much-needed transparency to the review process. She hopes the bureau will reevaluate its current procedures.
“This doesn’t make sense because people are being housed together,” Rice-Minus said. “If someone does have COVID-19, they’re exposing the other prisoners.”
Kumar Rao of the progressive Center for Popular Democracy said Congress should include specific directives to the Bureau of Prisons in its next coronavirus response package to reduce the number of incarcerated people and to provide the public with more rigorous data and information about how it is protecting the people in its custody.
“Senators Grassley and Durbin’s letter to the Department of Justice Inspector General is an important step, but demonstrates the need for significantly more aggressive Congressional action to address the COVID-19 crisis unfolding inside of our prison systems and hold the Bureau of Prisons to account,” Rao said. “The Senators’ letter also demonstrates that the BOP has resisted transparency and accountability for far too long.”
Grassley said he and Durbin have not yet heard back from the inspector general. They are working to schedule a call with Attorney General Bill Barr soon.