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US Federal Prisons Heighten Restrictions to Stem Spread of Coronavirus

03:00  01 april  2020
03:00  01 april  2020 Source:   online.wsj.com

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The federal Bureau of Prisons said Tuesday it would keep thousands of inmates at facilities nationwide locked in their cells with limited exceptions for the next 14 days as officials try to stem the spread of the coronavirus after one prisoner died and more prisoners and staff test positive for the disease.

Prison officials stopped short of calling the rare move a lockdown but said inmates would only be allowed out in small groups for things like showers, commissary and phone calls.

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The bureau will also be restricting the number of inmates being transferred between its facilities as part of the plan, which came after concerns were raised by lawmakers, corrections officers and inmates that officials weren’t being aggressive enough in their response to the pandemic.

At least 28 inmates and 24 staffers throughout the federal prison system had tested positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday morning, the bureau said. Union officials said those numbers are likely much higher, given the virus’s ability to quickly spread.

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The decision came amid escalating concern that inmate transfers between facilities could heighten the risk of an outbreak. Earlier this week, prisoners were still being moved, sometimes by bus or plane, across the country.

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The bureau said it would still have to shuttle some prisoners around for court cases and other legal proceedings, health reasons and to manage bedspace and overcrowding, but that it was working with the U.S. Marshal’s Service to further limit such travel.

The new restrictions were rare; the last time the federal prison system was on total lockdown was after a series of riots in 1995. Prisons officials said this was different because it wasn’t punitive and inmates would still have access to programs and services that are normally offered, such as mental health treatment and education.

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Concerns about an outbreak escalated after the death of the first federal inmate from the coronavirus on Saturday. Patrick Jones, 49, was held at a low-security facility in Oakdale, La., where at least nine inmates and eight staff had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday, with others in isolation or hospitalized for their symptoms, according to a count from prison union leaders. At least 16 employees at the facility are awaiting test results.

“If it gets in here, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” said Benjamin Freedland, 37, an inmate who was being held in an area with about 120 others at a federal transfer center in Oklahoma. He spoke by phone before the new measures were imposed. Newly arriving inmates had their temperature taken and were being placed in quarantine as part of a policy that aims to limit exposure. But Mr. Freedland said officers monitoring them continued to move about the prison and too few of them have masks. “The conditions are still porous and are ripe for infection,” he said via telephone.

Write to Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com

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