The U.S. Marshals Service has played covid-19 favorites with facilities that house federal prisoners. The consequences of that could be lethal.

State and local units holding the vast majority of inmates in the marshals’ custody receive weaker oversight for the novel coronavirus than private prisons that contract with the agency, says the Justice Department’s internal watchdog.

This is part of a larger problem with the coronavirus in correctional facilities at all levels nationwide. It has implications well beyond the cellblocks.

Almost 358,000 people behind bars in the United States have tested positive for the virus, and about 2,400 inmates have died of covid-19, as have 166 correctional staffers as of Thursday, according to federal, state and local data collected by the American Civil Liberties Union and the UCLA School of Law.

The nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank, said the coronavirus infection rate among incarcerated people in November was 3.7 times greater than the national rate. Although a new report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General does not attribute any deaths directly to Marshals Service policies, it does warn that agency practices “may lead to further infections.” Infections lead to deaths.

That’s a problem because coronavirus in prison might not stay there. Most people behind bars are released. The problem is compounded by the deficiency of the Marshals Service’s coronavirus contact tracing and testing.

“It’s important that in our prisons that staff as well as inmates are tested and vaccinated,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a past chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee’s crime subcommittee. “I realize in the public’s mind … the reaction might be, ‘Why would you give a vaccination to a prisoner when people outside need them?’ … But 85 percent of people in prisons get out.”

Coronavirus-caused illnesses and deaths in prisons threaten everyone outside. “We’re not going to get control over the virus,” Bass said, “until we address it with the same urgency in every sector of our society.”

In addition to housing and transporting federal prisoners, the U.S. Marshals Service, the oldest federal law enforcement agency, runs the government’s witness protection program and hunts fugitives, arresting about 360 every day. Its officers have the government’s broadest arrest powers.

The agency does not operate its own jails or prisons. Most of the 61,000 people under the marshals’ lock and key are held in state and local facilities under intergovernmental agreements. The remainder are split between 14 private detention facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

As of Thursday, 11,488 prisoners of the agency, cumulatively, have had covid-19. Currently, 1,222 are ill with the novel coronavirus, and 28 have died.

“The [U.S. Marshals Service’s] detention facility oversight plan is inconsistent and does not ensure that all active facilities” comply with the latest guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the watchdog’s report says.

Furthermore, it adds, the 873 facilities operated by the Marshals Service’s state and local government partners, which hold about 70 percent of the marshals’ prisoners, receive less scrutiny from the agency than it provides to its contract facilities.

Coronavirus tracking data in the report outlines stark discrepancies in the Marshals Service’s scrutiny of its detention facilities.

Its inmates testing positive in contract prisons, as well as in state and local facilities, are tracked daily. But unlike in private prisons, there is no tracking in state and local facilities of the numbers of quarantined inmates, staffers testing positive, coronavirus test kits and available N95 masks.

Coronavirus policies affecting Marshals Service prisoners held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons were not included in the report because the inspector general is examining those facilities separately.

Because of the inconsistencies in the Marshals Service’s testing, “we don’t have all the data and certainly do not know the full consequences of their negligence on the people in their custody, their staff or the people they encounter during transfers,” said Kara Gotsch, deputy director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates for lower incarceration rates.

Donald W. Washington, director of the Marshals Service, told a House hearing in December that his agency surveyed the state and local facilities and found that “the vast majority are following most of CDC’s guidelines.”

Half the respondents in an inspector general’s survey in July and early August said coronavirus screening checks were not done for Marshals Service deputies, and almost a quarter said protocols were not in place to notify them if they had been exposed to the virus.

This is perhaps one case where the much-criticized private prisons have an advantage over government-run prisons. President Biden has ordered the Justice Department, which includes the Marshals Service, not to renew contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities.

Agency officials have agreed with the inspector general’s six recommendations to improve the marshals’ response to the pandemic.

The inspector general also warned about risks from the agency’s “practice of transporting prisoners without first testing to confirm that they are COVID-19 free.”

A Marshals Service statement said the agency “does not move any prisoner who is symptomatic or known to be positive for COVID-19.” Prisoner testing “has been carefully researched and analyzed … to determine the benefits versus the risks, as well as the feasibility of implementing a program in facilities that USMS does not own or operate.” Currently, sentenced prisoners leaving four holdover sites are being tested before being transported.

Despite problems with the Marshals Service’s response to the pandemic in state and local facilities it uses, the ACLU’s Tammie Gregg was impressed with how the agency has handled coronavirus issues in its private prisons.

“They were way ahead of the rest of the general public and even the CDC, frankly, in rolling out their policies and procedures,” she said.

But with prisoners in local and state facilities, Gregg added, the effect of the Marshals Service’s lax oversight was to “roll the dice with their health.”