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COVID-19 Has Torn Through Prisons. Advocates Want Biden To Act Now.

The president's team has talked and met with advocates eager for change in the federal prison system after a pandemic-ravaged year. Now activists are losing patience for results.

Posted on March 19, 2021, at 1:48 p.m. ET

Chandan Khanna / Getty Images

Prisoners look out of their jail window as protesters gather outside the federal detention center in Downtown Miami on June 12, 2020.

The Biden administration is listening to criminal justice and prison reform advocates who are pleading with them to change the leadership and policies of the federal prison system after a year of mishandled coronavirus outbreaks. But after months of talks and meetings, those advocates are running out of patience for President Joe Biden to change a situation that they say is rapidly deteriorating.

One advocate, who asked to remain anonymous to share details about the private conversations, told BuzzFeed News that their organization met with transition staff to discuss leadership and issues in the agency and recently spoke with Vanita Gupta and Lisa Monaco, two of Biden’s nominees to lead DOJ, to continue those conversations. During the meetings with transition staff, they were asked about qualities they’d want to see in a Bureau of Prisons director and to submit a list of potential leaders.

Nearly all of the groups who spoke with BuzzFeed News said that they’ve participated in briefings and have had conversations with White House staff to raise concerns about BOP policy, including compassionate release and underused policies to thin prison populations during the pandemic. Advocates have specifically pushed the administration to direct the BOP to use its expanded authority to grant home confinement under last year’s coronavirus relief plan.

Advocates have had a mixed response to those conversations, with optimism about prospective change mingled with frustration about slow-moving progress.

“Our assumption was that they would bring in new leadership,” the advocate said following the conversations. “We said, ‘here’s all of the ways they’re not doing what they could be doing and how they’re complicit and they’re not going to change unless they have someone committed to change.’”

The White House did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News about the administration’s plans for BOP leadership or its plans to address the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons.

Since the pandemic began, advocates and congressional leaders have raised concerns about the safety of incarcerated people in federal prisons and questioned the management and policies of the bureau.

“You have people who are trapped in dorms with 100 other people, without PPE, without the ability to socially distance, without adequate isolation, and exposed to staff who are out in the community roaming around when there’s COVID and then refusing to wear a mask inside,” said Sharon Dolovich, the director of UCLA’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

Over 47,000 inmates of the 125,371 in BOP-managed facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and 226 inmates have died from COVID-related causes, according to current data released by the agency. Advocates have urged the Biden administration and the DOJ to reform and repeal Trump administration directives that they say have put incarcerated people in danger and made it harder to reduce population numbers.

On Thursday, 22 senators including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin urged the Department of Justice inspector general to perform a comprehensive review of all COVID-19 deaths of incarcerated people in the Bureau of Prisons custody in a letter sent on Thursday.

“One-off reviews of each individual COVID-19-related death may not be sufficient to determine system-wide failures in care across the entire federal prison system,” the senators wrote, highlighting investigations of deaths at FCC Lompoc in California.

The senators asked the inspector general to investigate if the Bureau of Prisons had underreported COVID-related deaths of incarcerated people and staff and if incarcerated people who died from the disease had received timely and sufficient medical care.

“It’s no secret that COVID-19 in the Bureau of Prisons has been a humanitarian catastrophe, and it’s a catastrophe that was made worse by the Trump administration’s recklessness,” David Fathi, the director of ACLU’s National Prison Project, told BuzzFeed News. The bureau, he argued, should now prioritize vaccinations and expand the use of home confinement.

Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday that only 49% of federal prison employees had accepted the vaccine and that their data did not cover employees who may have been vaccinated outside of BOP facilities.

Since Biden took office, advocates say they’ve urged the White House to take action at the bureau. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, along with 110 other groups, sent a letter to the White House in late February requesting a meeting to discuss concerns about the spread of the pandemic in prisons and urged Biden to implement a number of policies to mitigate infections, including expanding resources for vaccine education for inmates and staff, prioritizing release for vulnerable and older populations, and repealing a memo that uses an algorithmic risk assessment system, which advocates argue disproportionately gives minorities a lower score, to determine who qualifies for home confinement.

Another coalition sent a letter, obtained by BuzzFeed News, making similar requests to the Department of Justice after Attorney General Merrick Garland was confirmed by the Senate last week urging the agency to expand its interpretation of its authority to release incarcerated people.

Advocates say that the conversations with the White House have mostly been listening sessions and fact-gathering on the issues they’re concerned about. “The conversations that we’ve had with the transition team and the White House have all been one way,” one organizer said. They added that they were encouraged that White House staffers working on the issues are advocates and former Hill staffers who have experience working with advocates.

“My assumption is that if they’re hiring those kinds of folks to cover those issues, that if they’re hiring those kinds of folks, that we might see some progress. But at this stage I haven’t seen any,” the organizer said. “There’s so much to be done in this space and there hasn’t been the kind of response that we were hoping for given the sort of emergency that COVID presents.”

A Government Accountability Office report released earlier this month identified federal prison management as an emerging issue on its 2021 high-risk assessment list and detailed three problem areas, including inadequate management of staff and resources, inadequate planning for programs to prepare incarcerated people to return to society, and insufficient oversight and evaluation of programs. The report cited the bureau’s “significant leadership instability,” pointing to the turnover of “five different acting or permanent directors from 2016 through 2020.”

Organizers have said that if Biden and Garland plan on reforming the federal prison system, they should consider replacing leadership at the bureau.

“We’ve never felt like the Bureau of Prisons has used the authority it’s had to make matters better for people in prisons and their families,” Kevin Ring, the director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told BuzzFeed News. “There needs to be a cultural change there and they need to be empowered to make those changes.”

Bureau of Prisons leadership appointees are typically staffers who’ve worked their way through the bureau’s ranks. Carvajal, the bureau’s current director, served as the bureau’s assistant director of correctional programs before he replaced former director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer in February 2020. Hawk Sawyer had previously served as the bureau’s director from 1992 to 2003. Advocates say DOJ officials should appoint a reformist or someone from outside the bureau who can shift the culture of the agency.

“They’re like this dinosaur that rejects new thinking or innovation. People stay there for their entire careers and they traditionally recruit from within,” one longtime advocate told BuzzFeed News. “BOP is a problem, the culture there makes it so hard to penetrate and to implement new ideas and thinking.”

Advocates who spoke with BuzzFeed News cautioned that if Garland and the administration wanted to change the culture of the bureau, the new director would have to gain the trust of staffers who guard the facilities.

They added that federal prison staff has often clashed with leadership at the Bureau of Prisons over pay and understaffing issues that put employees and incarcerated people at risk.

Last July, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents over 30,000 Bureau of Prisoners workers among thousands of other federal employees, endorsed Biden over former president Donald Trump after growing frustrations around staffing and the administration’s handling of the pandemic. The endorsement came after AFGE’s Council of Prisons raised multiple concerns about hazardous conditions they argued put staff and inmates at risk of contracting COVID-19 last spring.

“The truth is going to be damning against the agency,” Joe Rojas, the Southeast regional vice president of AFGE’s Council of Prisons, told Reuters in April when the Justice Department’s inspector general announced that the office had launched remote inspections of BOP facilities after complaints from prison staff and inmates.

In June, Vice and the Marshall Project reported that incarcerated people had filed 11 class action suits against Carvajal and wardens at facilities across the country to push leadership to improve conditions at prisons.

In one lawsuit filed against Carvajal and the warden at FCC Lompoc, the ACLU argues that leadership had demonstrated that “they will not take the measures necessary to prevent the coronavirus from converting more prison sentences into death sentences.”

It’s an issue the Biden administration is aware of — last June, while serving as a senator from California, Vice President Kamala Harris joined other members of California’s congressional delegation in multiple letters to Carvajal highlighting concerns about issues surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak at FCC Lompoc and urged BOP to take a more proactive role in protecting staff and inmates.

The White House has said little about federal prison conditions or prison reform since Biden signed an executive order directing the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private facilities during his first week in office. Advocates have grown impatient as the administration has touted its next phase in fighting the pandemic.

In a statement released after Biden’s address commemorating the one-year mark of the pandemic and highlighting vaccination efforts, the Sentencing Project said that the president had glazed over the limited relief for incarcerated people and urged the government to follow recommendations to decarcerate prisons and fully fund medical and personal protective equipment for inmates.

“If these immediate steps are not taken, more of our people will die preventable deaths,” said Kara Gotsch, the deputy director of the Sentencing Project. “Congress and the President are not done yet.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.