Senators push Bureau of Prisons for answers on coronavirus-driven federal inmate releases

Washington

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The top officials from the Federal Bureau of Prisons testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday about the impact of the coronavirus crisis behind bars.

BOP reports more than 1,600 federal inmates and 170 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, and 68 inmates have died.

Lawmakers wanted to know what the agency is doing to prevent a prison sentence from becoming a death sentence.

“We cannot discuss the issue of incarceration in America without considering the impact of racism,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL.

Amid nationwide protests against police brutality, Durbin and his colleagues highlighted how the pandemic is disproportionately impacting black federal prisoners. He criticized the Justice Department’s criteria for releasing certain inmates to home confinement to help stop the spread of the virus.

“Under this flawed and cruel Justice Department standard, listen to this, only seven percent of black men were classified as minimum risk, compared to 30 percent of white men in our Bureau of Prisons,” Durbin said.

BOP Director Michael Carvajal told lawmakers his agency has placed more than 3,500 federal inmates on home confinement based on the attorney general’s standards, the inmate’s COVID-19 risk factors and public safety.

“These are individualized assessments, and we take them very seriously,” Carvajal said.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-MO, was concerned about the lack of coordination between the officers charged with supervising these inmates.

“Are we putting public safety at risk by accelerating early release of inmates without adequate resources to monitor those individuals?,” Hawley asked.

Carvajal told Hawley BOP is sufficiently monitoring the inmates and notifying communities.

“I remind everyone that we aren’t releasing these individuals from our custody,” Carvajal said. “They’re still in our custody. We’re responsible for them.”

For those still behind bars, Carvajal said the 122 facilities now have widespread testing and protective equipment.

“Despite our measures, there has been loss,” he said.  

While Carvajal works to make sure the coronavirus death rate doesn’t grow in federal prisons, the committee plans to hold a hearing on police reform June 16.

Stay with News 2 for continuing coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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