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Prisoners and guards agree about federal coronavirus response: ‘We do not feel safe’

Kareen “Troy” Troitino, a guard at the Federal Correctional Institution, stands outside the facility in Miami on April 21. (Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post)

Kareen “Troy” Troitino spent all of July working in a prison medical facility just as the coronavirus was surging through Miami’s Federal Correctional Institution, where the number of confirmed cases ballooned from a handful of prisoners to nearly 100 in a matter of days. When he returned to work at FCI Miami in August, he was caught off guard when the prisoners welcomed him back with a laudatory uproar he said “sounded like the Super Bowl.”

Word had circulated among prisoners in the 1,000-person low-security facility that Troitino, a corrections officer and union president, was telling reporters, lawmakers and managers that despite assurances, the Bureau of Prisons’ response to the coronavirus pandemic was endangering the lives of federal employees and prisoners alike.

Troitino, who spoke to The Washington Post as a representative of his union, acknowledged that prisoners and guards don’t always find themselves on the same team; but in a pandemic, everyone’s fates are intertwined.

“All of us are trying to survive,” Troitino said. “Your health affects me, and vice versa. Inmates and staff, we do not feel safe.”

Troitino is among the federal workers suing the government for hazard pay over what they say are risky conditions they’re forced to work under during the pandemic — but he’s hardly a disgruntled worker. When the BOP announced Aug. 5 it had moved into Phase 9 of its covid-19 action plan, prisoners and their advocates panned the news as the bureau’s attempt to create the impression that the virus is under control in facilities while papering over a deepening health and safety crisis.

BOP Director Michael Carvajal has dismissed scrutiny of the bureau as “misinformation.” During a June Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on covid-19 best practices for prisons and jails, Carvajal testified that the bureau was well-prepared and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had praised the bureau after evaluating unspecified facilities in the early months of the pandemic. As of June 1, Carvajal said 1,650 federal inmates and 171 bureau staff had tested positive.

Less than 12 weeks later, those numbers grew to 11,953 prisoners and 1,436 staff, with more than 120 combined deaths, according to UCLA’s Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

Covid-19 cases are proportionally higher and have spread faster in prisons than in the outside population, said Brendan Saloner, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who is studying the issue. Saloner told The Post federal public defenders contacted his team with troubling details from clients. “Their contention is that it’s worse in the BOP than in the state prisons,” he said.

People inside the facilities aren’t the only ones at risk from an outbreak, Saloner added; as seen with other congregant facilities such as nursing homes, outbreaks in prisons inevitably spread back outside through staff, vendors and furloughed prisoners.

“Prison isn’t Vegas — what happens there doesn’t stay in there,” he said.

‘A recipe for disaster’: American prison factories becoming incubators for coronavirus

‘A complete disaster’

Interviews with a dozen federal prison employees, prisoners, lawyers and health and legal experts who monitor correctional facilities, as well as reviews of lawsuits and petitions filed by prisoners and collected from the UCLA data project, show the ways by which the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems in federal prisons; they range from overcrowding and staff shortages to a lack of transparency around policies for personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing.

“It’s a complete disaster,” said Rob Norcross, an inmate at the minimum-security satellite camp at FCI Jesup in Georgia. The bureau’s stated guidelines about sanitization and social distancing don’t comport with reality, Norcross said: Prison camp inmates are barred from using hand sanitizer, lack cleaning supplies and have nowhere they can move to to create space.

“When it comes in, it spreads like wildfire because we can’t distance ourselves,” he said. The prison-provided PPE is of little protection, either. “They gave us non-reusable masks. I have the same masks from four-and-a-half months ago.”

Norcross told The Post he tested positive for the coronavirus in July and was quarantined in a dorm with 78 other coronavirus-positive prisoners, according to a court filing. The infection made his head “feel like bowling ball,” and he lost his sense of taste and smell to the point where he couldn’t detect a whiff of bleach.

Since recovering, Norcross wrote in petitions seeking compassionate release — he has underlying health conditions — that he has developed breathing problems and has been unable to get medical attention. An Aug. 7 appointment came and went without anyone seeing him.

Norcross’s complaints mirror those in a July report by the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General about conditions at a federal prison in Lompoc, Calif.: The OIG reported several issues, including a shortage of medical staffers to address prisoner health concerns and instances where prisoners who clearly exhibited covid-19 symptoms were not tested. The areas where the Lompoc facility scored the lowest were related to adequate PPE supply for staff and prisoners, and adequate soap or hand sanitizer for prisoners.

Now Norcross’s concern is that he could catch the virus again or die of complications from his first infection before he can go home to his family. He is still waiting for a judge to rule on his release.

Frail inmates could be sent home to prevent the spread of covid-19. Instead, some are dying in federal prisons.

Scrutiny over testing and transparency

Troitino, the Miami prison guard, said the virus has spread so efficiently through federal facilities because of inconsistent protocols that are almost always reactive rather than preventive. Troitino said prisoners were only getting tested if they had a fever — a testing threshold that hobbled the early months of the U.S. coronavirus response on the outside, before it spread to prisons.

“The strain of the virus we got in the facility shows no fever,” Troitino said. “Most inmates complain of extreme low energy, a headache, can’t get out of bed, vomiting, diarrhea.”

Emery Nelson, a BOP spokesman, told The Post via email that prisoners are typically tested when they’re considered symptomatic, in quarantine, as part of random testing or because they are being monitored because they are in a certain subgroup that may be exposed; results can take as few as 10 minutes for a rapid test (which can be less accurate), or as long as two weeks when processed by a commercial lab.

Those protocols don’t go far enough for lawmakers such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who sent Carvajal letters demanding answers on testing and transparency. Warren and several congressional Democrats introduced a bill Aug. 6 that would require federal and local corrections facilities to collect and report comprehensive data on covid-19 infections and deaths.

“Covid-19 is out of control in prisons and jails across the country — and the Trump Administration has failed to effectively manage this pandemic and protect the health and safety of incarcerated people, correctional staff, and the general public,” Warren said in the past week in a statement to The Post.

UCLA Law’s Sharon Dolovich, who leads the Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, echoed Warren’s criticism of the bureau, noting the data it does publish on coronavirus cases and deaths is non-comprehensive and opaque.

“The culture of secrecy that’s been allowed to develop in the nation’s prisons and jails over the past 40 years is antithetical to these institutions’ status in a democratic society,” she said. “We have government officials who act as if this is their private information.”

Troitino, the Miami prison guard, said he’s not sure how much more uncertainty his fellow prison workers can take; guards are eligible for retirement at age 50 and plenty are eyeing the door. He blamed the BOP for a lack of leadership and warned the poor working conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic will continue to thin the ranks in already-understaffed facilities.

“All I hear is, ‘As soon as I’m eligible, I’m out,’ ” he said.