Sen. Warren Introduces Legislation To Require Weekly COVID Testing in Federal Prisons

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The following is a media release from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office. She was elected by voters in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to serve the state in Washington DC in the US Senate. She is a Democrat.

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WASHINGTON DC – Earlier this week, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Congresswoman Nannette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), and Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, introduced a bill to address the shortcomings of the federal prison system’s response to COVID-19.

The Federal Correctional Facilities COVID-19 Response Act would require federal correctional facilities to conduct free, weekly COVID-19 surveillance testing for incarcerated persons and employees. It would also enhance data collection in federal correctional facilities, deploy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials to correctional facilities to help quell outbreaks, require the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), in conjunction with the CDC and a group of public health experts, to update COVID-19 guidance for correctional facilities, and ensure the Attorney General submits a report to Congress on his agency’s efforts to combat COVID-19 in correctional facilities to date. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is still raging out of control in federal correctional facilities, and the Department of Justice’s current efforts to prevent the virus’ spread in federal prisons and jails is woefully insufficient. That is why Congresswoman Barragán, Senator Booker and I are introducing necessary legislation to address the spread of coronavirus and keep incarcerated people and staff safe,” said Senator Warren.  

“The COVID-19 outbreaks at federal prisons across the country, including a massive outbreak in my district at the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in San Pedro, are extremely troubling. 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 first step in providing the necessary oversight, as well as the resources required to protect both inmates and staff at these vulnerable facilities,” said Congresswoman Barragán. 

“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,” said Senator Booker. “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 Correctional Facilities COVID-19 Response Act will save lives by conducting free, weekly COVID-19 testing and provide accurate, up to date, and detailed data that reflects the reality of the crisis we are facing in our prison system.”

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons and jails have become hotspots for the coronavirus’s rapid spread. Despite the danger the virus poses to incarcerated people and prison workers, the Department of Justice has mounted a lackluster response to the pandemic. At the federal level, the BOP posts daily COVID-19 updates on its website but excludes critical information such as hospitalization numbers and disaggregate data based on demographic categories. There is currently no requirement that federal correctional facilities consistently test either incarcerated people or employees. Although BOP has issued guidance on how to prevent COVID-19 in prisons, experts have panned this guidance as limited and ineffective. 

To address the federal prison system’s inadequate response to COVID-19, the Federal Correctional Facilities COVID-19 Response Act specifically would:

  • Require correctional facilities to conduct free, weekly COVID-19 surveillance testing for incarcerated people and employees. Correctional facilities will offer free medical care to incarcerated people who test positive for COVID-19 and will provide each employee who tests positive or is exposed to COVID-19 with unlimited paid administrative leave for the purpose of recovering from the virus.
  • Require correctional facilities to submit weekly testing data to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the CDC, and state public health officials. Data reports will include information about the numbers of incarcerated people and employees tested, the type of tests performed, test results, and the outcomes of COVID-19 cases, disaggregated by key demographic characteristics. The privacy of incarcerated people and employees would be protected. 
  • Deploy CDC officials to correctional facilities to help quell outbreaks in cases where three or more incarcerated people or employees present new COVID-19 cases within 72 hours.
  • Require the BOP in conjunction with the CDC and a group of public health experts, to update COVID-19 guidance for correctional facilities to ensure the widespread use of surveillance testing, expand contact tracing, promote decarceration, improve the living conditions of incarcerated people, and boost the use of personal protective equipment and other COVID-19 prevention tools.
  • Require the DOJ to issue a report to Congress on federal correctional facilities’ compliance with the CDC’s Interim Guidance on Management of COVID-19 in Correctional and Detention Facilities; efforts to release incarcerated people from prisons; and COVID-19 resource limitations.

The Federal Correctional Facilities COVID-19 Response Act has been endorsed by Partners in Health, The Sentencing Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“As a social justice health care organization with deep clinical experience working in prisons around the world, we applaud legislation like this that paves the way to reduce the staggering  toll of COVID-19 in our correctional facilities while upholding human rights for one of the most vulnerable populations in our society,” said Justin Mendoza a U.S. Health Care Advocate at Partners In Health.

Click here for a One Pager on the bill.

editor

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