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Friday, May 7th, 2021

Legislation to provide greater oversight of federal prisons’ COVID-19 efforts reintroduced to Congress

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U.S. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-CA) and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) recently reintroduced the Federal Correctional Facilities COVID-19 Response Act to revise the prison system’s COVID-19 response.

“The COVID-19 outbreaks at federal prisons across the country, including last year’s massive outbreak in my district at the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in San Pedro, have been extremely troubling,” Barragán said. “The Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons have a duty to protect and care for inmates and staff under their supervision. This bill is an important step in providing the necessary oversight, as well as the resources required to protect both inmates and staff at these vulnerable facilities.”

The legislation would require correctional facilities to begin providing free, weekly COVID-19 testing and vaccines to both the incarcerated and their employees and assure that they offer free medical care to those who test positive for it. Oversight would include requiring these facilities to submit weekly testing data to the Department of Justice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and state public health officials. CDC officials would be dispatched to sites where outbreaks emerged within 72 hours.

“The Department of Justice’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been unacceptable and has placed nearly 2.3 million incarcerated people in danger,” Booker said. “It is well known that people in prison and jail tend to have much higher rates of underlying health issues than the general public, and the conditions of confinement make social distancing virtually impossible. As a result, people in prison and jail are disproportionately contracting and dying of COVID-19.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would have to work with the CDC and a group of public health experts to update COVID-19 guidance for correctional facilities. This guidance would include new measures to promote the widespread use of testing and equitable vaccine distribution, expand contact tracing and use of personal protective equipment, improve living conditions overall and promote decarceration. The DOJ would then be required to issue a report on Congress on federal correctional facilities’ compliance with new guidance and efforts.

Beyond the halls of Congress, the legislation has also been endorsed by Partners in Health, The Sentencing Project, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and dozens of health experts from institutions across the United States.