Covid-19 goes to federal prison

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I sent you this message at approximately 6:53 P.M. on Wednesday, April 1st, 2020.

TERRE HAUTE, INDIANA (FREEMARTYG)--Covid-19 goes to federal prison.

Less than two days after Covid-19 killed its first federal prisoner, the U.S. Justice Department ordered a nationwide lockdown of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP). It took effect at approximately 8:40 P.M. Eastern Time Tuesday night in the communications-management unit (CMU) at the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Many prisoners here expected this weeks ago and prepared. They scurried at the last minute to secure perishable supplies in their cells though, such as ice and 190-degree (Fahrenheit) water. They sent last-minute messages to loved ones, grabbed books from the unit library, and tuned television sets to news channels.

It was an anxious time for correctional staff and prisoners alike as they implemented a sweeping night-time order issued by a far-away federal bureaucracy.

"See you in May!" said this Obama-era political prisoner, bidding an uncertain farewell to his sources.

The FBOP [start link to announcement:]has now announced[end link] that the lockdown will continue for 2 weeks. (This seems likely to change though.)

FCC Terre Haute [start link to announcement, if avail., from the local news channels:]confirmed its first Covid-19 cases[end link] days before. But in contrast to the nationwide lockdown, the affected prisoners were quarantined and the complex otherwise maintained normal operations. Vigo County, Indiana, which is home to FCC Terre Haute, has confirmed unrelated Covid-19 cases outside the complex, but as yet the county is not as hard-hit as hotspots in New York and Washington State.

Around 6:00 A.M. the following morning, correctional officers (COs) distributed to each prisoner who is on a regular diet 4 ounces of Post(R) brand cereal, 46 grams of Tova Industries, LLC., Instant Milk Replacer, and a Riggins(R) brand Fruit and Grain Bar, each in individual packaging. Hallal and Kosher breakfasts were also distributed accordingly.

Before noon, many of the same staff from the previous night returned to work after less rest than normal. The FBOP employs a higher-than-average percentage of former U.S. military service members as line staff. The officers here demonstrated diligent competence handling practical logistics. Language and manners remained polite and professional.

Officers collected outgoing mail and laundry and delivered incoming mail and commissary orders. Lunch largely followed the normal 5-week national schedule.

Wednesdays are hamburger days for most federal prisoners. Officers distributed disposable trays containing a single patty, an individually-wrapped slice of American cheese, sliced raw onion, whole-wheat bread, ketchup, and a grape-flavored powdered-beverage packet. Missing from the national menu as usual though were the scheduled fruit and mustard.

Dinner required some improvisation from the normal schedule. Rice replaced spaghetti and black-eyed peas replaced the regularly-scheduled vegetable side dish.

Warden Brian Lammer, who oversees one of the institutions in the correctional complex, made rounds through the CMU at 3:45 P.M Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, a staff psychologist made rounds and asked each prisoner how he is doing.

Officers also distributed a simple dental mask to each prisoner, to be worn outside of individual cells.

Prisoners in the CMU had 1 such hour outside their cells on Wednesday in small groups. The rotation started in the early afternoon.

Going forward, the rotation is to start earlier and each group is to receive 2 hours per day of "recreation." During this time, prisoners may get fresh air, watch television, shower, get ice and hot water, and send and receive electronic messages.

Phone calls remain limited in the CMU. Prior to the lockdown, other federal prisoners received 500 monthly minutes of phone time---200 minutes more than usual in order to make up for the suspension of visits. In contrast, CMU prisoners during this time were allowed 3 telephone calls per week, each of 15-minute duration, instead of their usual pair of 15-minute weekly calls. With the new lockdown, however, CMU prisoners are back to 2 calls per week.

The new dental masks seem to be an ad-hoc measure, instituted without epidemiological review. In contrast, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourages healthy individuals who aren't hospital workers from wearing face masks, although public-health authorities are now re-evaluating this advice based on experiences in other nations.

"A medical mask is not required for members of the public who do not have respiratory symptoms," the World Health Organization (WHO) [start link to Drew Hinshaw, WSJ, Wednesday, April 1st, 2020, page A1 and A7, "U.S. Takes New Look At Advice On Use Of Masks":]told The Wall Street Journal[end link]. "Wearing medical masks when not indicated can create a false sense of security that can lead to neglecting other essential measures, such as hand hygiene products."

Prisoners and staff in the FBOP have access to soap and liquid disinfectant. Prisoner orderlies here have been disinfecting surfaces more frequently than usual. The overall prison population, however, has received its only guidance on hand sanitation from a CDC placard available electronically and posted on the wall on 8.5x11-inch paper.

During typical operations, prisoners are prohibited from wearing masks that may hide their identities from staff and security cameras.

Additionally, the masks distributed to the prisoners here do not meet the required N95 grade to stop infectious diseases.

And FBOP staff aren't wearing them.

Eighteen days before the lockdown though, the FBOP minimized prisoner transfers and suspended all in-person visits by outsiders, including attorneys. Thus, FBOP line staff are now the primary potential point of contact between healthy federal prisoners and the cornoavirus that causes Covid-19.

Yet the DOJ has not issued N95 masks to FBOP line staff. Nor has it issued a policy mandating they wear the masks on the job and recommending that they also wear N95 masks in public to reduce the chance of carrying Covid-19 into federal facilities.

Updated: U.S. DOJ authorized a lockdown two days after first inmate fatality from Covid-19, not within 12 hours.