November 3rd, 2021 • Joshua Manson
The Biden Administration Plans to Send Thousands of Medically Vulnerable People Back to Federal Prisons. Here’s Why That Would Be a Deadly Mistake.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for people incarcerated in federal prisons. Inside, nearly 50,000 incarcerated people have been infected with COVID-19, and at least 256 have died of the virus.
This week, our team released a report taking a more granular look at how the pandemic has affected this population. We found that outbreaks in federal prisons have been frequent, wide-reaching, and extremely quick to spread.
Our report shows that facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) have been extremely dangerous places during the pandemic. Since its start, every single federal prison has experienced at least one outbreak. The sizes of outbreaks have varied, but many have been enormous: five facilities have seen outbreaks where more than 60 percent of their incarcerated population were actively infected at once, including three where more than 70 percent infected.
Last winter alone, 90 percent of federal prisons experienced an outbreak. During those months, at least 6 percent of incarcerated people and 5 percent of BOP staff experienced a COVID-19 infection.
Recognizing that federal prisons were such high-risk environments, then-Attorney General Barr issued a memorandum in March 2020 directing the BOP to place certain medically vulnerable on home confinement. Under the emergency policy, a limited subset of people would be allowed to serve their sentences at home and take basic public health measures that, for many, have been impossible in prison, such as social distancing, avoiding crowds, and wearing personal protective equipment.
In total, 33,766 people — deemed most vulnerable to COVID-19 and lowest risk by the BOP — have been allowed to serve their sentences at home. The majority have since completed their sentences and been released, as the BOP prioritized those who were nearing the end of their sentences. Today, there are 7,615 people on home confinement.
In its final weeks, however, the Trump administration published a memorandum announcing that those who were allowed to remain on home confinement during the pandemic, but who would not otherwise be eligible, must return to federal prisons when the pandemic is declared over. According to the New York Times, that may apply to as many as 4,000 people.
Over the objections of advocates, lawmakers, legal experts, business leaders, and others, President Biden has so far stuck with that decision. At a recent oversight hearing, Attorney General Garland told Congress that his office is “reviewing” that memorandum, but for now, thousands of people are still awaiting their fate.
Our report lays bare the dangers that those thousands of people would face upon returning to federal prisons. After months of living safely and productively in their communities during the pandemic, these medically vulnerable individuals would be sent to viral incubators under the custody of an agency that has proven itself unable to manage the pandemic in its facilities and among those in its custody.
Returning those people to prison would serve neither public health nor public safety. It would be a deadly mistake.
Jails and prisons have been dangerously undertesting their populations for COVID-19. That not only means cases have gone undetected and multiplied, but also that we don't know just how prevalent the virus has been. Our own analysis makes clear that true infection rates are likely much higher those reported.