United States Penitentiary Lee is one of two federal prisons in Virginia that some members of Congress want federal watchdogs to examine after complaints over how the facilities are managing COVID-19. (U.S. Bureau of Prisons)
WASHINGTON — Members of the Virginia congressional delegation from both political parties are pressing the U.S. Department of Justice’s internal watchdogs to include two state correctional facilities in the agency’s ongoing inspections during the pandemic.
In a Sept. 24 letter to DOJ’s inspector general, the lawmakers raised concerns about unsafe health and safety procedures, COVID-19 outbreaks and shortages of personal protective equipment for staff and incarcerated individuals.
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The two facilities that lawmakers want included in virtual inspections are the Federal Correctional Complex Petersburg and United States Penitentiary Lee.
“Our offices have received numerous reports from employees and families of incarcerated individuals regarding the spread of COVID-19 and allegations of deteriorating health and safety conditions within both facilities,” the Virginians wrote to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, signed the letter, along with Democratic Reps. Bobby Scott, Donald McEachin, Don Beyer, Jennifer Wexton, Gerald Connolly and Elaine Luria. Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith also signed.
The director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is an agency within DOJ that manages federal prisons, wrote back to lawmakers that the two facilities provide PPE and publish data on COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Both FCI Petersburg and USP Lee have ample supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to include face coverings, surgical masks, N95 respirators, gloves, gowns, face shields, and sanitation supplies,” M.D. Carvajal wrote Sept. 22.
Lawmakers argued that while the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website reported that 200 incarcerated individuals and 13 staff members were either positive or recovered from COVID-19 at FCC Petersburg, “our offices have received reports that — despite denials from BOP — cases are increasing and inadequate steps have been taken to limit transmission at this facility.”
Data tracked by the Marshall Project and The Associated Press found there have been at least 3,542 positive COVID-19 cases among state and federal prisoners in Virginia, with at least 24 deaths. The data is based on reports from state and federal prison agencies.
In Virginia state prisons, there have also been at least 761 positive cases among staff, with one death.
Lawmakers found that the Federal Bureau of Prisons transported one person who was positive for COVID-19 to the USP Lee facility.
“Such transfers are a potentially deadly lapse in judgment,” they wrote. “Transfers such as this could result in preventable outbreaks, both inside the prison and in the local community.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ data, the USP Lee facility has two incarcerated people who tested positive for COVID-19 and 11 staff members.
Lawmakers said they also received complaints about spoiled food at the facilities and restrictions on outdoor activities, phone calls and exercise.
“We recognize the importance of limiting large group gatherings, and that coordinating these activities can present logistical, health, and safety challenges,” they said. “However, it is imperative that correctional facilities find new ways to maintain and support a healthy quality of life for incarcerated individuals during this crisis.”
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