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The Bureau of Prisons must do more to flatten the curve

As members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have come together in recent weeks to combat COVID-19, one federal agency has failed to do its part to flatten the curve.

Despite calls from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and House members for all movement of inmates within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) system to stop during the COVID-19 national emergency, the agency has continued to move inmates between prison facilities nationwide.

In doing so, the Bureau of Prisons is ignoring public health guidelines and putting at risk the health and safety of inmates, corrections officers, their families, and the broader community.

This cannot continue. The Bureau of Prisons must immediately halt all inmate movement. And Congress should pass the PANDEMIC Act, legislation I have introduced to require them to do so.

Amid the many difficult stories over the past several weeks related to the COVID-19 pandemic, outbreaks in prisons across the country have been particularly alarming.

To varying degrees, states have addressed the issue more swiftly than others. Pennsylvania, for instance, immediately put all state-run prisons on quarantine after the first inmate was diagnosed with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Prisons has been reluctant to take decisive and preventative measures.

In fact, over the past several weeks, while the rest of the country has been altering our daily routines and pausing our livelihoods to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Bureau of Prisons has continued to move inmates across the country.

Pennsylvania’s 12th District is home to two federal prisons: United States Penitentiary Lewisburg and Federal Corrections Complex Allenwood. Since the beginning of President Donald Trump’s plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, both facilities have continued to receive inmates from across the prison system.

Recently, FCC Allenwood received 32 inmates from a facility in Oklahoma City which houses inmates from across the country. Despite the Bureau of Prisons saying it is adequately screening inmates for COVID-19 before transport, two of the inmates arrived at Allenwood sick. One inmate’s symptoms were so bad that he was immediately transported to a local hospital and tested for COVID-19.

After several tense days of waiting, the test came back negative. But this case is a clear indication that the Bureau of Prisons is not taking necessary steps to avoid moving sick inmates.

As the latest count, 438 BOP inmates and corrections officers have been diagnosed with COVID-19. That’s more cases than the states of Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. In northeast Pennsylvania, an inmate at the United States Penitentiary Canaan recently tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, three staff members have tested positive at this rural federal prison. More recently, a staff member at FCC Allenwood was diagnosed with COVID-19. At the United States Penitentiary in Oakdale, Louisiana and FCI Elkton in Ohio, a number inmates have died from the infection, while many more have been hospitalized.

Sadly, Oakdale and Elkton are not alone. In fact, while hotspots within the Bureau of Prisons system continue to increase, the Bureau of Prisons continues to move inmates in and out of facilities across the country, adding stress to an already overwhelmed health care system.

Local hospitals in Pennsylvania’s 12th District recently sent a letter to the Bureau of Prisons outlining how our local health system could be overrun by a large-scale prison outbreak like the one seen in Oakdale.

While these great hospitals have taken necessary steps to prepare for an outbreak in the community, they do not have the capacity to deal with a community outbreak and a prison outbreak.

This is a national problem. I recently held a telephone town hall event with nearly 4,000 constituents and corrections officers from across the country. Everyone had one clear message: Stop the movement of inmates now.

Last week, I spoke directly to Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal and asked that he halt inmate transfers. He told me that, to do so, the law needed to be changed. So, I introduced legislation to that effect.

The Pausing All New Detention and Ending the Movement of Inmates for Coronavirus (PANDEMIC) Act of 2020 would stop the movement of inmates to and across the Bureau of Prisons system during the COVID-19 national emergency. I introduced the bill with both Republican and Democrat original co-sponsors and the number of supporters continues to grow.

While I was glad to see the Bureau of Prisons respond to our efforts with an updated COVID-19 action plan that further restricts inmate movement, the new plan does not go far enough. It must immediately halt all inmate movement until the pandemic passes.

Faced with a once-in-a-generation global health crisis, the world has sacrificed together to flatten the curve and save lives. We are asking the Bureau of Prisons to do the same.

Congressman Fred Keller represents the 15 counties of Pennsylvania’s 12th District. Elected to Congress in a special election in May 2019, Congressman Keller serves on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and House Education and Labor Committee.

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